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Sinaia, Romania: A Great Addition to Your Bucharest Trip

If you’re fortunate enough to visit Bucharest, Romania, you will have much to explore and enjoy. Among the many things to see in Bucharest, you can tour the Palace of Parliament, one of the largest buildings in the world, peruse the stunningly beautiful Carturesti Carusel bookstore, and get pampered at Therme Bucuresti, an over-the-top relaxation center.

After you’ve seen what this amazing city has to offer, you may want to explore more of Romania.

Sinaia, Romania is a great choice. This town in the Bucegi Mountains is just 86 miles (140 km) north of Bucharest. It is most famous for being the home of Peles Castle, but it has so much more to offer.

You can see some of the highlights of Sinaia during a day trip, but I believe it deserves a longer stay.

Read on to discover all the things to do in and near Sinaia.

All money is in U.S. dollars.

A Little Background

Steve and I spent four weeks in Bucharest in the summer of 2018. While there, we took a group tour to Peles Castle and Bran Castle. During the bus ride, we drove through the center of Sinaia. We were both impressed with how picturesque it was, so when we found ourselves back in Bucharest in the summer of 2023, we took the opportunity to spend some time in Sinaia.

We spent five nights at the Hotel Boutique Vila LaKastel in Sinaia. It was pleasant enough, but we were disappointed with the breakfast. Not only didn’t we like the food, but they appeared to be rationing coffee. Our cups were only half filled, and we repeatedly had to ask for more. Because of this, we ate four breakfasts across the street at the Hotel Marami. They had a simple buffet and all the coffee we could drink for $9 per person.

Getting There and Getting Around

Getting to Sinaia from Bucharest

Sinaia is less than a two-hour drive from Bucharest. If you prefer public transportation, a train trip from Bucuresti Nord to Sinaia on CFR Calatori takes as little as 1.5 hours.

The Sinaia, Romania train station
The Sinaia train station

The train station is very close to the center of town. You can walk to your accommodations if you’re staying in town and don’t mind some stairs. You can also get a taxi or Uber.

We stayed near Peles Castle. You can walk to this area from the town center in about 20 minutes, and we did so several times. However, I wouldn’t recommend you do so with luggage. Sinaia is a mountain town, so there are a lot of inclines.

Getting Around Sinaia

A lot of Sinaia is walkable. One exception is the Telegondola station (more on that below), which is a 50-minute uphill walk from the town center. It is easy to get there by bus.

You can buy bus tickets at machines at the bus stops in town. If you’re boarding a bus elsewhere, you can get a ticket from the driver. Uber is available, and taxis are plentiful.

Things To Do in Sinaia

Peles Castle

The exterior of Peles Castle
Peles Castle in all its glory

Peles Castle is the main attraction in Sinaia. The castle was commissioned by Romania’s first king, Carol I, and inaugurated in 1883. The royal family used it as a hunting preserve and summer retreat until 1947, when King Michael I was forced to abdicate, and the royal properties were seized by the Communist government.

Carol I was of German heritage, which is reflected in the architecture. To call the castle ornate would be an understatement.

Fun Fact – Peles Castle was the first European castle to have electricity. There is a retractable glass ceiling and many other modern conveniences. You can learn more about them here.

The music room in Peles Castle
The music room

You can choose to see the first floor, the first and second floors, or all three floors. As of this writing, the cost is $11, $22, and $33, respectively. Expect to spend a few hours there.

The castle is closed on Monday and Tuesday, so those are great days to get photos on the patio without the crowds.

Click here for information on visiting Peles Castle and Pelisor Castle.

Pelisor Castle

Pelisor Castle exterior
The front of Pelisor Castle

I think of Pelisor Castle as Peles Castle’s little brother. It is just a four-minute walk between the two.

This castle was commissioned by King Carol I as the home for his nephew, Ferdinand I, and his wife, Marie. It was completed in 1902.

The exterior is in the German Neo-Renaissance style, like Peles Castle. However, the interior is filled with Art Nouveau elements. Most of the rooms are bland compared to the opulence of Peles Castle, but the Golden Room is a beautiful exception. The walls and ceiling have an intricate thistle design and are covered in 24-carat gold leaf.

The Golden Room in Pelisor Castle
The Golden Room

Ferdinand I became king upon Carol I’s death in 1914, as King Carol I did not have a male heir. He and his wife, Elisabeth, only had one child, a girl named Maria, who died from scarlet fever at the age of four.

Since this castle is much smaller than Peles, you only need about an hour here.

Stirbey Castle

Stirbey Castle is another 19th-century castle in Sinaia. It differs from the above two in that it is in the center of town and is much smaller. The castle was built by Princess Alina Stirbey, a Romanian noble, and her husband, General Emanuel Florescu, as a summer home.

Two pictures of Stirbey Castle
A drawing of the castle with Princess Alina and a current photo of the same view

The home is now a museum and a hotel with a cafe. In January 2024, the hotel rooms started at $60 per night. Get more information here.

It cost us $3.50 each to tour the museum. While not a must-see, it was interesting.

Dimitrie Ghica Park and the Town Center

The Dimitrie Ghica Park is in the center of town and was the area that made Steve and I want to see more of Sinaia when we drove through it in 2018.

The park has a large fountain and a pavilion. There are paved walkways and plenty of benches. The park is surrounded by impressive 19th and 20th-century buildings such as the Sinaia Casino (currently a conference center) and the Caraiman Hotel.

The Caraiman Hotel
The Caraiman Hotel as seen from Dimitrie Ghica Park

Bulevardul Carol I runs along one side of the park, then continues to the south. There are many restaurants, shops, and hotels on the stretch south of the park, including our favorite restaurant, Restaurant Wood, at Bulevardul Carol I 8.

Sinaia Monastery

The Sinaia Monastery is a ten-minute walk from Dimitrie Ghica Park. It includes two churches, the Old Church and the New Church.

The Old Church is over 300 years old. It is small, but the 17th-century Byzantine paintings are worth seeing. The New Church dates back to the mid-1800s.

The ceiling in the Old Church at the Sinaia Monastery
Look at the detail on the ceiling of the Old Church

The monastery served as a royal summer residence for King Carol I from his coronation in 1866 until the inauguration of Peles Castle 17 years later.

It is free to explore the grounds and the two churches. There may be a small fee to enter the museum. Learn more about it here.

Telegondola Sinaia

If you want some time in nature, the Telegondola is your ticket. We took the gondola to the top (6,560 feet or 2,000 meters). Even though it was pricy at $21 each round trip, it was worth it for the views.

Two views at the top of the Telegondola
At 2,000 meters – I’m not sure why there’s an abandoned phone booth

You can go to 1,400 meters or 2,000 meters. If you go to the top, you will change cars at 1,400 meters. Learn more here and in this article from The Balkans and Beyond.

Don’t forget a sweater or jacket (like I did). It was cool at 2,000 meters, even in the summer.

Hike and Ski

Sinaia and the land around it is so beautiful, you’ll want to spend every moment possible outside. One great way to do this is to hike some of the Sinaia trails. Here are some of the best trails to try from Wikiloc.

There is also a ski resort in Sinaia, but it doesn’t have a very good rating. A word of warning: if you get hurt, the health care may not be the best. I don’t have experience with health care in Romania, but Steve’s experience with health care in Bulgaria was abysmal.

Things To Do Near Sinaia

Bran Castle

The courtyard at Bran Castle
The courtyard at the castle

In less than one hour, you can drive from Sinaia to Bran Castle. You can also take a bus or train from Sinaia to Brasov and then get a bus to the castle.

Although it is known as Dracula’s Castle, this is a myth. Even so, it has undoubtedly brought many visitors to the castle. Learn the truth here.

We’ve been to the castle twice, both times in the summer, and it was packed. Since our first visit was part of a tour, we didn’t get to explore the grounds or the town. We had hoped to remedy that on our second visit, but that was not to be.

As we ended our tour of the inside of the castle and were ready to walk the grounds, heavy rains came down. We waited it out in the restaurant, hoping it would stop. It did lighten up a little, but not enough for us to walk around outdoors, so we returned to our hotel.

Getting directions to the castle was challenging. The desk clerk directed us to the central bus station (which is connected to the train station where we had arrived in Brasov). Once there, we couldn’t find any information on buses to Bran. We asked around, to no avail, although one man offered to drive us but wanted too much money.

Then I saw a line of people boarding a bus, so I asked them if they were going to Bran Castle. They weren’t, but the driver told us to get on, free of charge, as the bus was going to Autogara 2, where we could get a bus to the castle.

See the castle’s website to plan your visit and learn more about this fabled place.

We spent two nights at the Hotel Belvedere in Brasov. It was a nice hotel, but the best part was the restaurant, Restaurant Belvedere. We had two fabulous dinners there and highly recommend it.

Filet mignon and vegetable dinner
The food was as good as it looks and came with a small complimentary appetizer

Cantacuzino Castle

If you’re a fan of the delightfully quirky television show Wednesday, here’s your chance to see Nevermore Academy (or at least the building that was used for the exterior shots).

Don’t be surprised if the building looks different than on the show. Special effects and computer-generated imagery were used to make adjustments, especially to the roof line.

Cantacuzino Castle was the summer home of aristocrat and politician Prince Gheorghe Grigore Cantacuzino. It took ten years to build and was completed in 1911. Sadly, the prince died there two years later.

The castle is in the nearby town of Busteni. It is a short drive from Sinaia. You can also go by train. The trip will take about 30 minutes, with the last 18 minutes walking from the Busteni train station to the castle.

At the castle, you can tour the inside, check out the art gallery, stroll the grounds, or a combination of these. Expect to spend one to two hours there. Learn more at the castle’s website.

We didn’t get to Cantacuzino Castle. We’d planned to go on our last day in Sinaia, but it was raining. Since we weren’t staying near the train station, we would have had to take a bus there and then get on the train. This wouldn’t usually stop us, but that day, the bus and train schedules weren’t coordinated, so we gave it a pass.

You can read more about the castle and how it was used in the TV show in this Architectural Digest article.

Ialomita Cave and Monastery

If you want to venture a little further from Sinaia, you can take the hour-long drive to Ialomita Cave and Monastery in Moroeni. It may be challenging to get there using public transportation.

Once there, you can explore a large cave with a monastery at its entrance. We didn’t do this, but it is highly rated on Trip Advisor and Google Reviews.

You can learn more about Ialomita in the article from Calling For The Wild.

Our Costs

In Sinaia

Dates: July 27, 2023 – August 1, 2023
Number of nights: 5
Total cost for two people: $923
Cost per night: $184

Biggest costs: Accommodations: $482
Dining: 264
Activities: 90

In Brasov

Dates: August 1, 2023 – August 3, 2023
Number of nights: 2
Total cost for two people: $428
Cost per night: $214

Biggest costs: Accommodations: $235
Dining: 134

Final Thoughts

Sinaia was as magical as we had expected. It didn’t hurt that our 2023 trip gave us a break from the heat of Bucharest, either.

You can read about our month in Bucharest and Sinaia in our July 2023 update.

I would recommend Sinaia and the surrounding area to anyone who loves nature and history.

Until Next Time

I hope you enjoyed this article about Sinaia. Steve and I would love to hear your thoughts. If you’ve been lucky enough to see Sinaia, please share your experiences and impressions with us.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: November 2023

Hi there! Can you believe 2023 is almost over? I hope you are enjoying this festive time of year and looking forward to memorable holiday celebrations. Steve and I are anticipating Christmas with our daughters in Jacksonville, Florida.

November was a most unusual month for us. We spent the first three weeks in Kotor, Montenegro, and the last week in Rome. Our time in Kotor was pretty laid back, in large part due to the weather. However, our week in Rome kicked our butts as we were determined to see as much of the city as possible in one week.

Here are the highlights, one low point, and details of what we did in November.

Highlights

Exploring Rome

Hands down, seeing the famous sights of Rome was the best part of our month. We had several tours, which helped us understand more about the city. My knowledge of Roman history was pretty weak before we arrived.

Our best tour included an hour and a half at the Colosseum. I was surprised to learn that in addition to being used for entertainment purposes (i.e., blood sports), at one time, it was used for housing and that the games took place over many days, meaning daily life in Rome was put on hold. At mid-day, executions would take place, right about the time the spectators were eating lunch. And when a gladiator fell, the emperor had the final say on whether or not he was killed.

The Kotor Kitties

Kotor gives Istanbul a run for its money with its love of cats. Old Town is teeming with free-range cats. Every cat we saw was healthy-looking, and most were friendly. There is a fountain in Old Town that is a gathering place for many of the cats. Nearby, there is a row of several tiny cat houses. A local woman has been feeding the cats for thirty years.

You can help keep the Kotor Kitties healthy and prevent overpopulation by donating to the Kotor Kitties charity.

Photos of four cats
Four of the beautiful Kotor Kitties

Our Own Kotor Kitty

Not long after we arrived at our Airbnb, we had a visitor: a small, sweet black and white cat. We gave her lots of love and she came to see us several times a day. I wish we could have brought her inside, especially in the bad weather, but we didn’t since it wasn’t our apartment.

A black and white cat looking in a window
Our kitty friend

My Favorite Old Town

Kotor’s Old Town is my favorite old town so far. I liked it even better than Dubrovnik’s. Kotor’s Old Town has narrow, winding streets compared to Dubrovnik’s wider ones. In Kotor, it felt as if I’d stepped back in time. An added plus is that the streets are too narrow for motor vehicles. I also found Kotor’s Old Town less commercial than Dubrovnik’s, although it was no less crowded on days when cruise ships were in port.

Old Town Kotor street
A street in Old Town on a Sunday morning

Low Point

Bad Weather in Kotor

The weather in Kotor flip-flopped throughout our stay. Half the time, we had sunny, cool weather that was perfect for hiking. The other half was filled with heavy rain and high winds. The odd thing was that the good and bad days alternated throughout our stay.

We put our downtime to good use, working on our plans for the next four months.

Steve continued work on his genealogy project, and I worked hard to finish my website redesign, only to get a fatal error the day I hoped to go live.

What We Did in Rome

Fought the Crowds at the Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain
The Trevi Fountain with crowds

We stopped by this famed fountain, and each of us tossed in a coin to ensure we would return to Rome.

If you visit Rome, don’t miss this beauty. But beware, it is always crowded.

Toured the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica

The Vatican Museums were at the top of my list of things to see in Rome, and I was not disappointed. We opted for a tour that included the museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica.

I was surprised by the size of the Sistine Chapel. It is much smaller than I expected, and photos were not allowed. St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world, made up for that. Both the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s are places we hope to see again.

Michelangelo’s Pieta
Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica

Soaked in the Beauty of the Colonna Palace

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I scheduled a visit to the Colonna Palace since it isn’t one of the most well-known attractions. It is an understatement to say Steve and I were blown away. This private palace, built by the Colonna family in the 14th century, is full of amazing artwork and architecture. The Colonna family still inhabits the palace today.

Two photos of the Colonna Palace
Inside the Colonna Palace and in the garden

Explored the Capuchin Crypt and Museum

This place wins the prize for the most unusual thing we saw in Rome. The Roman Catholic church Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini was just a two-minute walk from our hotel. The museum and crypt are connected to the church.

We went there specifically to see the crypt, but the ticket included the museum, and you have to go through it to get to the crypt. The museum was interesting, even for the non-religious, but the highlight was the crypt.

When you enter the crypt, your mind can go two ways: either horror movie mode or THIS IS SO COOL mode. We chose the latter.

The bones of 3,600 Capuchin friars have been arranged to make patterns on the walls and ceiling. Skeletons and mummified remains, clothed in the Capuchin habit, are placed throughout. There are five chapels, and each has a name, including the Crypt of the Pelvises.

Inside the Capuchin Crypt, Rome
Inside the Capuchin Crypt, Rome (photo by Wellcome Images on commons.wikimedia.org license CC BY 4.0 DEED

The Capuchins are an order of Franciscan friars who strive to live like St. Francis of Assisi. Capuchin friars dedicate their lives to prayer and service to the poor.

Photos aren’t allowed in the museum or the crypt, but here is one from Wellcome Images:

Visited the Catacombs of St. Callixtus

After visiting the Capuchin Crypt, we toured the Catacombs of St. Callixtus. This was the official burial place for about half a million Roman Christians in the 3rd century A.D.

You can only enter the catacombs with a guide, and photos aren’t allowed. Our tour was only 45 minutes long, during which we walked through a small portion of the 12.4 miles or 20 km of the tunnels. We saw a few frescos and many niches where bodies had been buried. After the novelty of the Capuchin Crypts, these catacombs were a disappointment.

What We Did in Kotor

Hiked to Ft. Vrmac

We had a break in the rain and took the opportunity to zig-zag our way up the 2,575-foot or 785-meter-high Vrmac Mountain.

It took us two and a half hours to reach the top and two hours to go back down. Of course, we made frequent stops to appreciate the view of Kotor Bay and take photos.

A man hiking along a cliff
Steve hiking the Vrmac Mountain

This hike is easy to moderate. I was a bit uneasy on the trail because much of it is along the edge, and it is rocky. I spent far too much time wondering how badly we’d be injured if we fell over the edge.

We safely reached the top and saw the underwhelming Ft. Vrmac, many pot-bellied pigs, and one friendly white cat.

That night, it was early to bed, but only after downing a few painkillers.

Checked Out the Maritime Museum

Steve and I decided to see the Maritime Museum while waiting for better weather. It is big enough to have a comprehensive variety of artifacts, yet not so large as to be overwhelming.

The museum is in a Baroque palace that was once the home of the noble Grgurina family.

As the name implies, the museum’s primary focus is on ships and maritime life. There are many well-done model ships, along with maps, paintings, and photos of a bygone era. There is also a room displaying weapons from the 17th and 18th centuries. Two rooms have been recreated with period furniture, and there are countless examples of items used in daily life (primarily from the 18th and early 19th centuries).

Four boys in costumes
Four of the young boys chosen as Little Admirals of the Boka Navy Kotor in the 1930s

Most of the specimens had English translations but they did not include all the details that the Montenegrin descriptions did (hint: you can use the Serbian translation on Google Translate to translate Montenegrin).

An audio guide is available, but neither Steve nor I found it helpful as it focused heavily on personalities we never heard of. We were allowed to take photos. The entry fee of 6 euro was reasonable.

This museum is okay if you’re looking for a short activity, but don’t feel bad if you miss it.

Visited St. Tryphon’s Cathedral

This Romanesque cathedral was consecrated in 1166. It was severely damaged by two earthquakes, one in 1667 and one in 1979. It has since been restored.

We went there to see the Sacral Art Museum, but I was more intrigued by the interior architecture.

Inside St. Tryphon’s Cathedral, Kotor
Inside St. Tryphon’s Cathedral, Kotor

Saw a Bit of Tivat

We had a break in the rain, so we decided to see the nearby town of Tivat. It was easy to reach Tivat via a fifteen-minute bus ride. Tivat does not have an old town because the town is too young, having been founded in the 14th century. Kotor, with its remarkable old town, was founded in the 5th century BC!

Tivat may not have an old town, but it does have a town center. Tivat’s center is a twenty-minute walk from the bus station. Walking along the main road to the center, we commented on how unattractive the town was.

Once we reached the center, we decided to head to the bay and look for a restaurant for lunch. We quickly found one and had a quick pizza lunch. At this point, we weren’t impressed with Tivat. Then, we strolled along the waterfront and discovered the area of Porto Montenegro. This upscale area has a large marina, shops, restaurants, and lovely buildings.

We walked around, admiring the modern beauty we had been missing, and agreed that this area deserves another visit.

A man in front of the Porto Montenegro sign
Steve enjoying the elegance of Porto Montenegro

Hiked the City Walls to Kotor Fortress

We were apprehensive about this hike because we had it confused with the Ladder of Kotor hike. We skipped the Ladder of Kotor hike after we learned our limits during our hike in Theth, Albania, in October (which I wrote about in our October update).

On the City Walls hike, you climb up 1,350 steps to reach the Medieval Kotor Fortress (also known as St. John’s Fortress, San Giovanni Fortress, St. John’s Castle, and Castel St. John). The fortress sits 850 feet or 260 meters above sea level and has great views of Old Town and the Bay of Kotor.

Hiking Kotor’s City Walls
A view of the bay from Kotor’s City Walls and Steve and me at the Kotor Fortress

Once at the fortress, you are free to explore the ruins.

We were charged 15 euro per person to hike the City Walls.

Here is helpful information about climbing the city walls from Wanderful Journeys Travel.

If you are more adventurous, check out the details for the Ladder of Kotor hike from Earth Trekkers.

A Bad Airbnb Review (Boo Hoo)

In our last two monthly updates, I talked about the issues we had with our Podgorica Airbnb and how we decided that we would no longer clean or fix things that hosts missed. Our host in Podgorica didn’t like being held accountable and left a negative review. This is only our second less-than-glowing review out of 46 reviews.

Airbnb allows you to reply to a review, but they don’t make it easy. You need to log in on a desktop computer. Really? In this day and age? Get it together, Airbnb.

Fortunately, our Kotor Airbnb was much better. The only issue was that we didn’t have use of the washer/dryer for the first week, but our host offered to pay for us to have our laundry done in the meantime.

Our Take on Kotor

Kotor Bay and the surrounding mountains are incredible. Unfortunately, except for the Porto Montenegro area of Tivat, everything else we saw was uninspiring. If the weather had been better, we would have seen other nearby towns and attractions.

Shopping was disappointing as well. There are three decent-size supermarkets a few minutes’ walk from Old Town, as well as others in the city. For anything else, like clothing, office supplies, or household items, the selection was the most limited we’ve seen in any town.

See more of Kotor in our Kotor, Montenegro Photo Gallery.

Our Take on Rome

After having been in the Balkans for the last several months, it was great to return to a world-class city. We are happiest in places with many attractions, which you don’t get in the Balkans, even in the capitals.

The downside of Rome was the cost. We’ve enjoyed low prices for so long that we had extreme sticker shock. It may seem normal to people in the U.S. and Western Europe, but we can’t get over restaurants charging $13 (12 euro) for a bowl of soup.

After a two-week cruise from Rome to New York City, we will spend four days in New York City. No doubt we will continue to be shocked by high prices.

Until Next Time

That’s it for our November update. Steve and I wish you joy, love, and peace this holiday season.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Kotor, Montenegro Photo Gallery

Here are our favorite photos from our November 2023 trip to Kotor, Montenegro. There are also two photos from the nearby town of Tivat.

Most of the photos were taken in Kotor’s Old Town, my favorite old town to date. As you can see, there were few people as it was off-season, and the weather was often bad during our stay.

To see the images in a slideshow with captions, press any image.

Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: October 2023

Hi there, and happy November. Steve and I spent most of October in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, and then moved on to Kotor, Montenegro, at the end of the month. We had a low-key month in Podgorica, but Kotor should be busier since there is more to do.

Even though we weren’t as active in October as usual, that’s okay. We will be busy from late November through January. Here is our monthly update with the highlights, the low points, and a summary of what we did in October.

Highlights

A Side Trip Back to Albania

We took a side trip back to Albania, the country where we spent most of September. We spent three nights in Shkoder, where we discovered a factory that makes Venetian-style carnival masks, explored castle ruins, visited the Marubi National Museum of Photography, and saw a few churches.

Our side trip had its own side trip. From Shkoder, we went to the village of Theth in the Albanian Alps for two nights. We spent most of our full day there on a challenging mountain hike.

Then we returned to Shkoder for one last night, where we ate at two of our favorite restaurants, Bar Restaurant Elita and Fisi Restaurant, and relaxed at our hotel.

A hotel courtyard
The courtyard at Hotel Treva in Shkoder

A Great Neighborhood in Podgorica

Our Airbnb was in a new part of town full of apartment buildings, shops, and a mall just a five-minute walk away, but the best part was the nearby restaurants.

One of our favorites was Spago, which had terrific pulled pork sandwiches. We had fun with our waiter, who was quite taken with Hedgemeister.

We also loved Zheng He, a high-end Chinese restaurant. The best Chinese food we’ve ever had was in Quito, Ecuador. The food at Zheng He was a close second.

These websites are in Montenegrin, but the menus have English translations.

Chinese food
Delectable Chinese food at Zheng He

A Killer Steak Dinner

I’m a big fan of filet mignon, which isn’t easy to find as we travel. So, when I found a restaurant in Podgorica called The Living Room, and they had filet mignon on the menu, I was all over that. My filet was perfect, which is a miracle because they tend to overcook meat in Balkan countries (at least for our taste).

Steve ordered a T-bone steak, which was sold by weight. We were surprised when we got the bill and his steak cost 56 euro ($59). But he loved it, and it was one of the best meals we’ve had in a long time.

Ease of Filling Prescriptions

It seems that I have reached the age where filling prescriptions makes the highlights list, lol.

In last month’s update, I discussed the challenges of filling prescriptions in Albania. It was much easier in Montenegro. I was able to use the prescription from an Albanian doctor to buy my medication at an affordable price. The ease of keeping up with prescriptions while on the road ranges from incredibly simple to downright frustrating.

Low Points

More Airbnb Issues

In last month’s update, I also wrote about our issues with our Podgorica Airbnb, including unusable cooking supplies and a poor cleaning job. Our host addressed these. But the fun didn’t stop there. One of the sliding closet doors got progressively harder to move and needed to be adjusted. Then, the water in the building was turned off for a brief time. When it came back on, we had a leak under the bathroom sink. Each of these issues meant waiting for a repair person to arrive and fix it.

We realize things will go wrong, but this Airbnb had more than its share. It’s funny how many more problems we seem to have in newer buildings than in old ones.

What We Did

Toured the Venice Art Mask Factory in Shkoder

Who would have thought that some carnival masks you see in Venice shops are made in a little city in Albania?

We saw a wide variety of masks and learned how they are made. You can read about this interesting attraction in “A Venetian Surprise in Shkoder, Albania.”

Explored the Rozafa Castle in Shkoder

Steve and I spent several hours at the Rozafa Castle ruins, where visitors can wander at will. The oldest parts of the limestone and brick castle date back to the 4th or 3rd century BC (according to Wikipedia).

The church ruins at Rozafa Castle
Ruins of a 13th-century church at Rozafa Castle

There is a heartbreaking legend about the castle that you can read about here.

Hiked the Albanian Alps

And what a hike it was. We got much more than we bargained for on this hours-long trek along steep, rocky trails and across rivers and a small waterfall.

A man hiking on a mountain
Steve on the trail

We vowed to be more careful about which trails we commit to, but we can’t deny how much we loved the scenery along the way.

A trail in the Albanian Alps
On the trail

Visited the Dajbabe Monastery

The Dajbabe Monastery is a 126-year-old Serbian Orthodox monastery on the outskirts of Podgorica. Its church and several shrines are in a cave. The grounds are covered with dozens of olive trees.

The altar in the Dajbabe Monastery
The Dajbabe Monastery altar

The complex was beautiful and peaceful, but the best part was the cat who greeted us at the entrance and enjoyed all the attention we gave her.

Two photos of a black and white cat
The monastery cat greeting me and holding still long enough for a photo

Strolled the Older Areas of Podgorica

We took several walks into the old parts of the city, including Old Town and Gorica Park. Neither of these wowed us. The highlights of Old Town consist of a clock tower and two traditional restaurants. Gorica Park is a large park whose claim to fame appears to be its adventure course.

We came across the charming Church of St. George near Gorica Park. You can see the ropes used to ring the bells hanging on the front of the church.

The Church of St. George
The Church of St. George

We enjoyed the area around the Old Ribnica River Bridge. The bridge was built in Roman times and reconstructed by the Ottomans in the 18th century.

The Ribnica River was dry when we were there, but that didn’t detract from the charm of the bridge or the small park surrounding it.

The Ribnica River Bridge
The Ribnica River Bridge

Marveled at the Orthodox Temple of Christ’s Resurrection

This is a must-see in Podgorica. We’ve seen a lot of churches, and this one still impressed us. The outside has many reliefs. Inside, the walls and ceiling are covered with colorful paintings.

Photos aren’t allowed inside the temple, and we believe in respecting that request. This time, we were bad, and both snuck a photo because it was so incredible.

Three photos of the Orthodox Temple of Christ's Resurrection
Clockwise from upper left: the front of the temple, Steve’s clandestine photo of the interior, and a relief of Noah’s Ark on the exterior of the temple

On the Website

We published two new posts in October: the aforementioned “A Venetian Surprise in Shkoder, Albania” and “Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: September 2023.”

We also published two photo galleries: one for Skopje and one for Tirana. This is a new addition to the website. Please let me know what you think of the galleries.

Where to Next?

We will spend most of November in Kotor, Montenegro, and then head to Rome for eight nights at the end of the month.

In early December, we will board the Norwegian Gem and spend fifteen nights cruising from Rome to New York City.

Just before Christmas, we will have a short stay in New York City. Steve has been there many times, but I have only been there once. That was forty-four years ago on our honeymoon. I can’t wait to see the city decked out for Christmas. Maybe we’ll get lucky and see snow.

Then, we will travel to Jacksonville on December 23rd to celebrate Christmas with our daughters, Steph and Laura. We will be in Jacksonville through January 20th. As with every trip back to the U.S., we will spend time with family and friends, see doctors, and stock up on supplies. This trip promises to be less hectic than previous ones since we took care of many things on our visit last March.

Do you have travel plans for the coming holidays? If so, Steve and I would love to hear about them in the comments section below.

Until Next Time

That’s it for our October update. Steve and I wish you an enjoyable autumn and, for those of you in the U.S., a Happy Thanksgiving.

Happy traveling,
Linda

What You Need to Know When Visiting Tirana, Albania

What’s it like to visit Tirana, the capital of Albania?

Except for the lack of street addresses and lackadaisical bus schedules, it was similar to visiting any other city.

Before traveling to Tirana, I knew nothing about the city or the country. In September 2023, Steve and I stayed there for four weeks. You can read about that in “Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: September 2023.”

Here are the practical things you need to know when visiting Tirana. There is a lot of information, but you can use the table of contents to find the information you need quickly.

All money is in U.S. dollars unless otherwise stated

About Tirana

1. Tirana is the capital of Albania.

2. About 500,000 people live in Tirana.

3. The same number of people live in Skopje, North Macedonia, yet when we were in Skopje in August 2023, the city was uncrowded. In contrast, Tirana was crowded.

4. Tirana is growing by 30,000 people annually, and new buildings are popping up everywhere.

Two highrise buildings
Just two of the many modern buildings in Tirana

5. Skanderbeg Square is a large square in the city’s center. It honors a 15th-century nobleman who rebelled against the Ottomans.

6. The Lana River runs through the city, but don’t rush to see it. At least when we were there, it was not much more than a little creek.

The Lana River
The Lana River in September

About Albania

7. 2.8 million people live in Albania.

8. Albania is a Balkan country on the Adriatic Sea.

9. From 1946 to 1991, it was under communist rule.

10. Albania became a republic after the fall of communism in 1991.

11. The country’s official name is the Republic of Albania.

12. Unlike its neighbors, North Macedonia and Montenegro, Albania was never part of Yugoslavia.

13. You can learn about Albania’s historical periods in this article by Adventure Unbound.

Culture

14. The most unusual thing about Tirana was the lack of street addresses. Our Airbnb listing referenced the GPS coordinates instead. We used the name of the hotel across the street from our Airbnb when dealing with taxis and using map apps. You can read more about this in this BalkanInsight article.

15. Religion was banned in Albania in 1967 when the Communist Party declared Albania to be the first atheistic state. The ban on religion was lifted in 1990.

16. About 60% of Albanians are Muslim. Almost 40% are Christian (Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox). A small number of people are atheists or follow another religion.

Communication

17. Albanian is the official language.

18. The Albanian language has two dialects: Tosk, which is spoken in the south, and Gheg, which is spoken in the north.

19. English is widespread in Tirana. It is on many menus and in museums.

20. Google Translate worked great the few times we needed to translate something.

21. We used Vodafone SIMs. We each got 35GB of data for 30 days at $15 each. We typically use 3GB of data per month.

22. Our SIM cards work great in Tirana and the seaside town of Durres.

Money

23. The Albanian Lek is the official money in Albania. Its currency symbol is ALL.

24. The letter “L” indicates the currency is lek. So 500 L means 500 lek.

25. As of September 2023, 1000 L = ~$10.00. To convert the price to U.S. dollars, we divided by 100.

26. We were able to use Euro at stops along the bus route from Skopje to Tirana and to pay the taxi driver when we arrived in Tirana.

27. Credit cards aren’t accepted everywhere. We had to use cash at some restaurants and all the museums we visited.

28. Tipping isn’t expected, but it is nice to leave a little cash if the service is good.

29. Beware of the ATM fees. When we arrived in Tirana, I went to the first ATM I saw, which was a Tirana Bank ATM. I was charged $7.00 to withdraw $200. I read that ATM withdrawals from Credins Bank and Alpha Bank may be free, but that information was two years old. Still, it would be worth a try.

30. Spend your cash before leaving the country. It is difficult, if not impossible, to exchange it in other countries.

Getting Around

Walking

31. It was easy to get around the city by walking, but the sidewalks were usually crowded.

32. Google Maps worked great for walking directions.

33. Most streets have crosswalks painted on them. If there is no traffic light, all you have to do is step off the curb, and traffic should stop, even on busy streets with several lanes. Still, you should look both ways and use caution; bikes, scooters, and motorcycles don’t always stop.

34. If there is a traffic light, obey the walk/don’t walk signs.

35. Bikes and scooters are less prevalent than in other cities. Even so, it’s best to walk outside the bike lanes and cross bike lanes like you cross a street. Look both ways.

36. Look over your shoulder before moving left or right on the sidewalk (like you do when changing lanes while driving). Despite having designated bike lanes, bikes and scooters are often ridden on the sidewalks, and the riders seldom warn you when they want to pass. Motorcycles occasionally drive on the sidewalks, too.

Public Transportation

37. Uber and Lyft aren’t available in Tirana. Of course, there are taxis, but we usually used buses to get to places that were too far to walk.

38. Google Maps did not work for public transportation.

39. For bus information, we used Moovit. This helped a bit, but wasn’t totally reliable. For example, when we wanted to go to Bunk’Art 1, Moovit told us to take bus L4. We couldn’t find bus L4, but we knew we were supposed to head towards Porcelan, which was bus L11. If in doubt, ask the drivers.

40. Don’t expect to find traditional bus stations. We wanted to buy tickets from Tirana to Durres, so we headed to the bus station (per Google Maps), only to find it was just a bus stop. Fortunately, a local man told us how to get to Durres.

41. There is very little local bus information online. Just show up at the bus station or stop and ask around. Luckily, everyone was helpful.

42. Riding the bus is easy. You pay the ticket man after you get on. A ride in the city was 40 cents (40 lek). You don’t need exact change; the ticket man has plenty.

43. If you arrive by bus from an international city, you will be dropped off on the street near the Tirana International Bus Terminal. When leaving on an international trip, go to the back of the building where you were initially dropped off. There, you will find stores selling tickets for many destinations and bus lines. Again, when unsure, ask around.

44. Your best bet when using buses in Albania is to go with the mindset that as long as you are heading towards your destination, you’re okay.

Food and Water

45. A Google search on the safety of tap water in Tirana turned up everything from “Yes, it’s safe” to “Don’t drink it, you’ll get sick.” I dislike using bottled water, so I filtered and boiled tap water. That worked well.

46. Steve and I aren’t big on traditional food, but we did try some. Albanian cuisine is big on meat, which is often overcooked. The exception was the chicken kabob I had at Taverna Paidhage.

A woman with a chicken kabob
My chicken kabob at Taverna Paidhage tasted as good as it looked.

47. If you love trying traditional food, check out this list of Albanian foods from Nomad Paradise.

48. Generally, restaurant meals were inexpensive. Several times, we had two entrees and two beverages for under $20.

49. While restaurant food was inexpensive, the cost of drinks was often on par with what we’ve paid in other Southeastern European cities.

50. Conversely, we found the prices at grocery stores to be shockingly high, at least compared to other Balkan countries.

Restaurants

51. My favorite restaurant was Lissus Fish. They serve a complementary dish of marinated anchovies (super yummy) and have delicious fish dishes at reasonable prices.

52. We enjoyed dinner at Restaurant Tymi. This small restaurant is packed to the gills with pop culture decor. The food is cheap, and the music is lively. Warning: there may be a line to get in.

A wall of pop culture memorabilia
The walls and ceiling are a pop culture explosion at Restaurant Tymi

53. The food at Serendipity Mexican restaurant wasn’t as good as our homemade burritos, but we still enjoyed a platter of Mexican treats.

A platter of Mexican food
The variety platter for two at Serendipity

54. If you want to go full-on tourist, go to Oda one evening. This restaurant features traditional Albanian food and live music in a courtyard full of lemon trees. It is best to make reservations. We didn’t, so we had to wait a bit, but we got complementary raki while we waited! We didn’t love our food, but it was a fun experience.

Shopping

55. Grocery stores and pharmacies are open on Sunday.

56. We did most of our grocery shopping at Conad since there were several of these near our apartment.

57. The Conad store closest to us was on Bulevardi Zogu 1, but we preferred the Conad store in the Toptani Shopping Center and the one on Kavaja Street.

58. Bags are not provided at grocery stores. You can either buy them at the checkout counter or bring your own.

59. You have to bag your own groceries, and there isn’t a separate area to do this as we’ve seen in some other cities. This can be challenging if you are alone and buying a lot.

60. Pharmacies are indicated by a green cross. In addition to prescription medicine, you buy over-the-counter medication here, too.

61. Rossmann & Lala is your best bet for toiletries, household cleaners, and personal care items.

Things to See and Do

Bunk’Art 1 and Bunk’Art 2

62. Bunk’Art 1 and Bunk’Art 2 are history museums in the abandoned bunkers of the communist era.

63. These are just two of the 750,000 bunkers built in Albania by dictator Enver Hoxha from the late 1960s until his death in 1985 as he became increasingly fearful of foreign invasions.

64. You can see bunkers throughout Albania. Learn more about them in this National Geographic article.

65. Bunk’Art 1 is located on the outskirts of the city and covers five decades from 1939 to 1990. You can learn what life was like under occupation by fascist Italy, during WWII and the short-lived German invasion, and under four and a half decades of communist rule.

A mannequin with a gas mask
This will be your guide at Bunk’Art 1

66. Bunk’Art 2 is in the city center not far from Skanderbeg Square. It focuses on the power of the police from 1912 to 1991.

67. Photos are allowed in both museums.

68. Here is the Bunk’Art museum website.

Churches and Mosques

The Et’ Hem Bej Mosque

Et'hem Bej Mosque
Et’hem Bej Mosque (the building on the left)

69. The Et’ Hem Bej Mosque is a small mosque on Skanderbeg Square.

70. The mosque was built in the 18th century during Ottoman rule. It was closed during the communist era but treated as a historical monument.

71. You can visit the mosque. Women must cover their hair, and everyone must remove their shoes.

72. I couldn’t find information about the visiting hours online. The best thing is to call or check the information posted at the mosque.

The Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral

The Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral
The Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral

73. This modern church opened in 2012.

74. It is just a short walk from Skanderbeg Square.

The Great Mosque of Tirana

The Great Mosque of Tirana
The Great Mosque of Tirana

75. The mosque was still under construction in September 2023. Even so, it is worth seeing.

76. The mosque is also called the Namazgah Mosque. It is a thirteen-minute walk from Skanderbeg Square.

Dajti Mountain

77. Dajti Mountain is close to Bunk’Art 1. It is a great lookout place with much to do according to their website. We were there on a Wednesday in September, and many things were closed.

78. The Dajti Ekspres cable car takes you up and down the mountain. There are several ticket options posted at the office. We paid $14 each for a round trip on the cable car.

Cable cars going up and down Dajti Mountain
The Dajti Ekspres with the city of Tirana below

79. The cable car does not run on Tuesdays unless that Tuesday is a festival day.

The House of Leaves

80. The House of Leaves is also called the Museum of Secret Surveillance.

81. It was originally a private obstetrics clinic in Albania and was briefly used by the Gestapo during WWII. With the advent of communism, it became the headquarters of the Sigurimi, the country’s security, intelligence, and secret police.

82. The museum focuses on the equipment and methods of the Sigurimi.

83. No photos are allowed inside.

The National Historical Museum

84. The National Historical Museum is a large museum that covers the country’s history from the 4th century BC to the mid-20th century.

85. The museum has three floors. The Pavilion of Antiquity, on the first floor, had excellent English explanations. The other two floors did not.

The New Bazaar

86. The New Bazaar is in the Old Town of Tirana. The centerpiece is a glass and steel structure loaded with souvenir and food vendors. Other shops and restaurants fill the streets around it.

The New Bazaar
A small part of the New Bazaar

The Pyramid of Tirana

The Pyramid of Tirana
The Pyramid of Tirana

87. The Pyramid of Tirana was a museum dedicated to Enver Hoxha’s “legacy.” After the fall of communism, it had a few other short-lived uses.

88. The Pyramid is undergoing a renovation that will turn it into a cultural center with classrooms, studios, cafes, and restaurants.

Tanner’s Bridge

89. Tanner’s Bridge was built by the Ottomans in the 18th century. It’s worth your while to see it and get a photo or two if you are in the area.

90. The bridge is a three-minute walk from the Grand Mosque.

A man standing on Tanner’s Bridge
Steve on Tanner’s Bridge

Tirana Castle

91. The Tirana Castle dates back to the 1300s, and only a few walls remain. The area inside the walls now houses shops, bars, and restaurants.

Two photos of the Tirana Castle
The entrance of the Tirana Castle and raki bottles in a shop in the castle

See more photos of Tirana and Durres in our “Tirana, Albania Photo Gallery.”

In Summary

We didn’t love Tirana. It was too busy, and there wasn’t a lot to do. There is definitely a lack of museums. We were disappointed that the National Gallery of Art is permanently closed (according to their website).

If you are in the region, it is worth a short trip to see what it’s like. We were there for four weeks, which was too long.

Until Next Time

Do you live in Tirana, or have you been there? If so, Steve and I would love to hear what you think about it and if I left anything out. Just drop a comment in the comment section below.

If you’re planning to visit Skopje, check out our post “What You Need To Know When Visiting Skopje, North Macedonia.”

Happy traveling,
Linda

A Venetian Surprise in Shkoder, Albania

One of the many things I love when traveling is discovering something incongruous, like when Steve and I ran across the wonderful Beatles Museum in the Hungarian city of Eger. You can read about that in our post about Eger and Egerszalok.

In early October 2023, we discovered another unexpected gem while visiting the Albanian city of Shkoder. It was the Venice Art Mask Factory.

A Little Background

We spent most of September in Tirana, the capital of Albania. That was followed by four weeks in Montenegro’s capital of Podgorica. On the bus ride from Tirana to Podgorica, we passed through Shkoder, Albania.

Steve and I liked what little we saw of the city, the 5th largest in Albania. I was particularly enamored with the magnolia trees that lined the streets. Even though they were several months past blooming, they were loaded with seed pods, and they were magnificent.

Once we settled in Podgorica, we arranged to take a side trip to Shkoder.

What to Do in Shkoder

Shkoder, with a population of 200,000, has several interesting things for tourists to do.

You can explore the Rozafa Castle ruins. You can check out the “Marubi” National Museum of Photography and the Site of Witness and Memory museum, which commemorates the victims of the communist regime in Shkoder.

You can see two cathedrals: St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the Orthodox Cathedral of the Nativity. You can visit mosques, including the Ebu Bekr Mosque and the Lead Mosque.

Farther from the city, Shkodra Lake and the Mesi Bridge are waiting for you.

But what really caught us by surprise was the Venice Art Mask Factory.

About the Venice Art Mask Factory

According to their website, the Venice Art Mask Factory is the biggest supplier of Venetian and masquerade masks. All the masks are handmade and begin with handcrafted papier mache. Then, they are individually decorated.

Photo collage of Venetian-style masks
Just a few of the impressive masks

In addition to being worn at the Carnival of Venice and other masquerade festivals around the world, these marvelous masks are used in Las Vegas shows and movies like Eyes Wide Shut. They also adorn the walls of restaurants and homes.

How to Get to the Factory

The Venice Art Mask Factory building
The Venice Art Mask Factory

The factory is an eight-minute drive from the city center, which is great if you have a car. We found that public transportation in Shkoder is scarce, and information is hard to come by. We waited 45 minutes for one taxi and an hour for a second one that never showed up.

If you don’t have a car, you can rent a bike. They are all over the city.

Steve and I chose to walk. It was an easy half-hour walk from the city center.

Our Experience at the Factory

There are two sections to see at the factory: the showroom and the factory itself.

The entrance to the Venice Art Mask Factory showroom
The showroom entrance

We saw the showroom first and were blown away. There was so much to see, and it was all enchanting.

After taking in the showroom, we saw the factory. It is a light-filled building with two rows of long tables where the masks move from table to table as they become masterpieces.

We were there on a Sunday, so no one was working in the factory. According to Tripadvisor, if you go on a weekday, you can see the artists at work.

Photos aren’t allowed in the factory, but be sure to notice the lovely paintings on the walls.

We were shown around by Tony, who explained the mask-making process in detail and answered all our questions.

We toured the showroom and factory at no charge. However, some Tripadvisor posters said they paid 3 euro to tour the factory, so be prepared. Since we don’t buy souvenirs, as they would end up in our storage unit, we gave Tony a donation. We never felt any pressure to buy something, but there were many beautiful creations we would love to own.

Until Next Time

That’s it for this short but sweet post. If you get a chance to visit Shkoder, which I highly recommend, do not miss this gem.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Skopje, North Macedonia Photo Gallery

Steve and I spent most of August 2023 in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. This city is unlike any we have visited. It’s quirky, it’s over-the-top, it’s never boring. We enjoyed seeing hundreds of statues and loved the museums. I hope you enjoy a look at some of the highlights of Skopje.

To see a slideshow of the images with captions, press any image.

You can read more about Skopje in “What Is Skopje Really Like? An Honest Review” and “What You Need to Know When Visiting Skopje, North Macedonia.”

Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: September 2023

Hi! I hope you had a great September. Ours was quiet, which is sometimes a good thing. And now, here we are in October, and it’s time for another monthly update.

Steve and I spent most of September in Tirana, Albania. Since we had just come from Skopje, North Macedonia, Albania’s neighbor to the east, we couldn’t help comparing these two capital cities.

The streets of Skopje were uncrowded; Tirana’s streets were full of people. The city center of Skopje is loaded with classical-style white buildings due to the Skopje 2014 project; Tirana is full of unique buildings. In Skopje, stores and many restaurants are closed on Sunday. When we arrived in Tirana, we were shocked that nothing was closed on Sunday. It made sense when we learned that Albania is 60% Muslim. By contrast, North Macedonia is 60% Christian.

Even though our time in Tirana was more laid back than usual, Steve and I got to know a little about this city and the country of Albania. Here are the highlights, the low points, and what we did in September.

All money is in U.S. dollars.

Highlights

Inexpensive Restaurants

Steve loves to cook, but I would eat out every day if I could. Unfortunately, that isn’t in our budget. But we came close to doing that in Tirana. I can’t remember a place we’ve been where restaurants were so inexpensive. It is possible to get lunch or dinner with beverages for two people for under $20. While the cost of restaurant food was very low, the cost of drinks was similar to what we’ve seen in other Balkan cities.

We took advantage of that, enjoying traditional food as well as Mexican, Chinese, and Indian cuisines. We also ate seafood at Lissus Fish, where I had fish soup and marinated anchovies for the first time. I loved them both.

A sign in a Mexican restaurant in Tirana
A sign in the Serendipity Mexican Resaurant

Seeing the city grow

Albania is one of the poorest European countries, but Tirana is growing. The population of around half a million is increasing by 30,000 people per year, and tourism is rising.

You can read about Albania’s growth in this article by Emerging Europe.

There are already many modern buildings, and more are in progress. I loved the unique architectural styles.

Two modern buildings in Tirana
Two of my favorite buildings in Tirana

A Short Trip to the Coast

It didn’t take long for us to see the Tirana attractions we were interested in, and it was too hot to hike, so we decided to spend a few days at the coast.

We spent three nights in Durres, which is on the Adriatic Sea. The point of the trip was to do a little lazing by a pool and listen to the sea. And that is precisely what we did.

Our hotel, the Hotel Palace, made it easy to relax. I spent two days doing nothing but lying on a lounger and reading (well, maybe I snuck a few drinks and a meal in here and there). Breakfast was included, and there was an amazing variety of foods.

Four photos of the Palace Hotel in Durres
Scenes from our stay at the Palace Hotel

I wish I could sing the town’s praises as well, but frankly, Durres was the least pleasant beach town Steve and I have been to. There is a lot of poverty, and the beach wasn’t very inviting.

Bunkers and apartments in Durres, Albania
Three abandoned bunkers in Durres

Nice hotels are popping up, and there are some upscale shops and restaurants among the rundown buildings.

Dresses in store windows
Fancy dresses in shops on the main street

We stopped at Troy Motor and met Lona. She is super friendly and recommended two restaurants to us. If you are into motorcycles, particularly Harleys, and find yourself in Durres, stop in and say hello.

Low Points

The cost of groceries

We were perplexed by the high price of groceries and couldn’t understand how restaurant food can be so cheap and groceries can be so expensive. The prices may be in line with grocery costs in the U.S., but they were a shock to us after having spent the last several months in Croatia, Romania, and North Macedonia.

Closed Attractions

There aren’t a lot of tourist attractions in Tirana, and two of them on our sightseeing list have been permanently closed: the National Gallery of Art and the Mezuraj Museum, which at one time displayed art and archaeological specimens owned by the Mezuraj family.

Trying to Fill a Prescription

After our experience with buying medicine in Turkey, we were spoiled. All we had to do there was go to a pharmacy and tell them what we wanted. Well, Albania is just the opposite. There, you need a prescription for pretty much everything, and the doctors I saw would only write prescriptions for medicines related to their specialties.

I was running low on diabetes medication, so I found a private clinic. Their schedule and ours didn’t mesh, so I went to a private hospital. First, I had to pay $40 to see a doctor. Then, I spent the next half hour saying no to the battery of tests she wanted to run. She finally wrote the prescription and suggested I get a few simple tests. I got a quote for $43 for a blood test and a urinalysis. This was twice the cost than at the first clinic I went to, so I took my prescription and left.

The doctor said I might have trouble finding my medication and was referred to Farmacia Greke. I did find it there, but it was $100 for 28 pills! I decided to wait until we get to Montenegro, where I hope to have better luck.

After wasting several hours and $40, I learned that it is hard for tourists to fill prescriptions in Albania. Specific medicines may be unavailable or hard to find, they may not have the dosage you need, and they may be expensive. It’s best to make sure you have plenty of all of your medications when visiting Albania.

What We Did

Explored Bunk’Art 1 and Bunk’Art 2

Two photos of the entrance to Bunk’Art 1
The Bunk’Art 1 entrance

When I first heard of Bunk’Art, I thought it was an art gallery in a bunker. It isn’t. Bunk’Art 1 and Bunk’Art 2 are indeed bunkers, but they have been turned into museums about Albania’s communist era (1946-1991).

We visited both. They are full of artifacts that illustrate the horrors of that era. There is a lot of emphasis on the dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled the country under communism from 1946 until he died in 1985.

Hoxha had 750,000 bunkers built throughout Albania from the late 1960s until his death as he became increasingly fearful of foreign invasions after politically isolating Albania from most of the region.

You can learn more about the Albanian bunkers in this National Geographic article.

Visited the House of Leaves

The House of Leaves in Tirana
The House of Leaves with listening ears in front

The House of Leaves was built in 1931 as the first private obstetrics clinic in Albania. It was briefly used by the Gestapo in 1943. With the advent of communism, it became the headquarters of the Sigurimi, the country’s security, intelligence, and secret police.

The building is called the House of Leaves because of the vines growing on it.

The museum, also called the Museum of Secret Surveillance, focuses on the equipment and methods of the Sigurimi. I particularly liked the exhibit about the movies produced to further the communist agenda.

Checked Out the National Historical Museum 

The National Historical Museum in Tirana
The front of the museum

The National Historical Museum is the largest museum in Albania. It covers the country’s history from the 4th century BC to the mid-20th century.

The best part was the Pavilion of Antiquity, which covers the Prehistoric Period to the Early Middle Ages. I’m not usually excited by ancient artifacts, but they were well presented in this museum. I even saw a few unique items, including this tool to measure dry goods:

Ancient measuring device
An ancient measuring device

The Pavilion of Antiquity had detailed descriptions in both Albanian and English. Unfortunately, the rest of the museum lacked English descriptions, even though there were many interesting exhibits.

Both Bunk’Art museums and the House of Leaves showcase the evils of the communist period. The National Historical Museum of Tirana has the Hall of Communist Persecution as well. I was disappointed here and in Skopje that there aren’t any museum exhibits about the fall of Communism, which was more than 30 years ago.

Climbed the Pyramid

In 1988, three years after Hoxha’s death, a museum dedicated to his “legacy” was built in Tirana. It was in the shape of a pyramid.

After the fall of communism, the pyramid had a few other uses. It was a nightclub, an event space, and a NATO base during the Kosovo War (1998-1999). After this, it was abandoned and fell into disrepair.

One morning, I decided to see it. I was expecting a wreck covered in graffiti since that was the last photo I had seen of it. I was delighted to find a gleaming white structure with dozens of brightly colored cubes being built around it. These buildings will be used as cafes, restaurants, and classrooms for after-school education.

Here is more information on the pyramid project.

Three photos of the Tirana Pyramid
The pyramid and one of the new buildings

Saw a Movie (With Popcorn!)

I discovered a movie theater showing My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3. With some sleuthing, I learned that the movies are shown in English with Albanian subtitles. So Steve and I took advantage of the opportunity to see it.

There were only about ten people in the theater for the matinee. Tickets weren’t exactly a bargain at $7 each, and popcorn and drinks were another $14, but still cheaper than U.S. prices.

It was fun to spend a few hours in the theater, but the movie wasn’t nearly as good as the first one.

Perused the New Bazaar

Although we are seldom in the market for souvenirs or trinkets, we had to check out the New Bazaar. This is a neighborhood in Tirana’s Old Town that, as the name suggests, is a market center. There are over 300 businesses in the New Bazaar, but the centerpiece is the eye-catching steel and glass structure built in 2017.

Carpets at the New Bazaar in Tirana
Colorful carpets for sale

No More Mr. Nice Guy and Gal

Steve and I headed to our next city, Podgorica, Montenegro, at the end of the month. As soon as we arrived, we were impressed with the city, or at least the part we were staying in. It is a modern area full of apartments, restaurants, and shops. Our Airbnb was in a new building.

When we first entered the Airbnb, it looked good. It was modern and appeared to be clean. We were surprised to see a mini fridge instead of a full-size one. That oversight was on us. Looking back, we saw that there weren’t any photos of the refrigerator in the listing. Except for one past stay, we’ve always had a full-size fridge. Now we have something else to add to our Airbnb checklist.

We asked our host if we could get a second mini-fridge since we booked for four weeks. She told us that small refrigerators are standard in one-bedroom apartments in Montenegro, and they wouldn’t provide another. I checked other Airbnb one-bedroom listings in Montenegro, and they all had full-size fridges. Interestingly, the dishwasher was large.

As I discussed in “The Truth About Staying In Airbnbs,” apartments generally look great on the surface. However, with a few exceptions, something has been overlooked or ignored. The main culprits, but not the only ones, are dirty cooking supplies, full vacuum cleaners, and dirty air conditioner and bathroom exhaust filters.

Up until now, we have taken care of these issues, not wanting to bother the host for minor things. That stops now. In this apartment, we found two pans that were unusable. The coating on the non-stick pan was flaking off. The spatula was coated with dried-on food. The bathroom vent was dirty and the filter was missing. We also found nine places that weren’t clean, including the balcony, which hadn’t even been swept. We let our host know. They replaced the kitchen items and sent a cleaner to take care of the rest.

Steve and I decided that from this point on, we are not going to fix these issues. We will ask the host to take care of them. I’ll let you know how that goes.

On the Website

There were two new posts in September: “Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: August 2023” and “What Is Skopje Really Like? An Honest Review.”

To see more of Tirana, check out our Tirana photo gallery.

I’ve been able to tweak this website a bit to get closer to the design I want. Changing themes is proving to be time consuming and challenging, but I am not giving up.

Where to Next

At the end of the month, Steve and I headed to Montenegro for eight weeks, where we are hoping for cooler weather so we can do some hiking. We will split our time between the capital of Podgorica and the city of Kotor. Then, it’s off to Rome for a short trip before we get on a ship and cruise back to the U.S.

We will dock in New York City on December 19th and spend four nights there before going to Jacksonville for a month. I have only been to New York City once, and that was 44 years ago. I can’t wait to see the city at Christmastime and visit the 9/11 Memorial.

Until Next Time

That’s it for our travels in September. It looks like things will be picking up in the next several months. One thing is for sure; we intend to enjoy the fall weather.

Drop a comment in the section below and let Steve and I know what you did in September and what you have planned for the rest of 2023.

Happy traveling,
Linda

What Is Skopje Really Like? An Honest Review

If you asked 1,000 people which European city they would most like to visit, I’d be surprised if even one would put Skopje, North Macedonia, at the top of their list.

It’s not because Skopje isn’t worth visiting, but it is not well known and can’t compare to the draw of many European cities. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider visiting it.

Read on to find out what Skopje is really like, at least from my perspective.

A Little Background

Steve and I spent most of August 2023 in Skopje. It was the 88th city we’ve visited. We chose it for several reasons:

1. It is outside the Schengen Area – we had to spend 90 days out of the Schengen Area after visiting Greece, Croatia, and Italy in the spring of 2023.

2. It is inexpensive – to keep our budget under control, we offset visits to expensive places like the U.K., the U.S., and Western Europe with trips to more economical places.

3. It looked unique – I had read about the elegant classical buildings, the multitude of statues, and the two new pedestrian bridges lined with sculptures that resulted from the Skopje 2014 project. I was curious to see them.

You can read about our stay in Skopje in “Wind and Whim’s Monthly Recap: August 2023” and see more of the city in our post “Skopje, North Macedonia Photo Gallery.”

What’s Good About Skopje?

It’s Never Boring

There’s no denying that Skopje is interesting. The buildings, sculptures, and bridges in the city center are fun to explore. Skopje is the perfect city for you if you love to turn a corner and see something unexpected.

Six photos of Skopje
Skopje is beauty mixed with quirkiness

The Compact City Center

Most of the attractions are within walking distance of each other. For example, you can visit Macedonia Square and then cross over the mid-15th century Stone Bridge to Old Town and the Old Bazaar.

The Stone Bridge in Skopje
The Stone Bridge heading towards Macedonia Square

Old Town and the Old Bazaar

You can spend hours exploring Old Town and the Old Bazaar and never get bored. In addition to oodles of souvenir shops, there is an entire street lined with jewelry stores.

A street in the Old Bazaar, Skopje
A typical street in the Old Bazaar

There are also many stores selling ballgowns and wedding dresses.

Two dresses for sale in the Old Bazaar
If you’re in the market for a fairytale dress, you can find it in the Old Bazaar

Learn more about the Old Bazaar in this article by Wander-Lush.

The Public Transportation

For times when you don’t want to walk, there are a lot of buses. You can use the Skopska app to get tickets for a single trip or a weekly or monthly pass.

Uber and Lyft aren’t available, but there are plenty of taxis.

Good Restaurants With Good Prices

You won’t want for places to eat. And the prices are kind to your budget. As you would expect, there are plenty of traditional restaurants. However, our favorite was a Mexican restaurant called Amigos. Their margaritas alone were worth a visit.

A Few Impressive Museums

While there aren’t many museums and tourist attractions in Skopje, the museums we visited were very good. Steve and I were particularly impressed with the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia and The Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Independence.

The Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia
The Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia

English is Everywhere

It is easy to communicate since almost everyone speaks English. It is also widespread in museums and on menus.

Diverse Architecture

If you can take your eyes off the glitz of the Skopje 2014 project, you can see examples of other architectural styles.

Photos of four buildings in Skopje
Different architectural styles in Skopje clockwise from upper left: the neoclassical Ristik Palace, the postmodern Church of St. Clement of Ohrid, a Brutalist building, and a 15th-century Ottoman building (originally a bath, now an art gallery)

What Could Be Better?

As entertaining as it was to experience the city center, I couldn’t help thinking that with the Skopje 2014 project, the city leaders bit off more than they could chew. Maintenance seems to be a problem. There were just too many things that needed attention.

The Bridge of Art and the Bridge of Civilization

Both the Bridge of Art and the Bridge of Civilization were built as part of Skopje 2014. Both of these pedestrian bridges are lined with sculptures of men who were important to North Macedonian history. Only half of the sculptures on the Bridge of Art had name plates when we visited, and none on the Bridge of Civilization did. Older photos of the bridges show nameplates.

The Bridge of Art in Skopje
The Bridge of Art

In addition to the statues, both of these bridges are lined with ornate lights. We never saw them on even though we visited during tourist season.

The Bridge of Art in Skopje at night
What the Bridge of Art looks like with the lights on (photo from Canva)

The National Theater

The National Theater building is lovely to look at, being adorned with statues and theatrical masks. There are also several free-standing statues around the building. Unfortunately, the area near the ground is already in disrepair, as you can see from this photo:

The National Theater in Skopje
The National Theater – you can see the disrepair along the bottom of the photo

The Litter

There is a lot of litter. While it isn’t unusual for cities to have a litter problem, I think a city that is trying to attract tourists would take extra care to keep the city clean.

Surprisingly, we saw much more litter around the city center than where we stayed, which was a 20-minute walk from the center.

The Graffiti

There is also way too much graffiti.

Two photos of the National Opera and Ballet exterior
Top photo – mosaics on the National Opera and Ballet building; Bottom photo – graffiti on the side of the building

The River

The section of the Vardar River that flows through the city center was not the least bit pleasant. This may have been because the water level was low.

There was a lot of litter in the river, some of which was accumulating on posts. While looking online, I discovered these weren’t posts but water jets meant to put on a lighted water show. Like the lights on the bridges, these were not working when we were there.

You can see how pretty the fountain looks in the featured photo.

The Vardar River
The Vardar River was not picturesque

The Pirate Ships

Yes, you read that right. There are replicas of three pirate ships on the Vardar River. One ship is a restaurant and hotel, one is deserted, and one is in ruins.

If you’re wondering what pirate ships have to do with the landlocked country of North Macedonia, you are not alone. North Macedonian architect Nikola Strezovski said it best: “Skopje 2014 was something that shocked us all at the time. By the time the pirate ships arrived on the Vardar River, we were used to crazy.”

Two pirate ships in Skopje
Top photo: The Hotel Senigallia (hotel and restaurant). Bottom photo: an abandoned ship

The Fountain Water

This last item is minor, but the water in the Warrior on a Horse monument was green. A lovely shade of blue would be so much better.

Lower part of the Warrior on a Horse monument in Skopje
Blue water is pretty; green water – not so much

Should You Visit Skopje?

I don’t believe Skopje is a good choice for the occasional traveler. There are more exciting places with many more tourist attractions. But for frequent and full-time travelers, it is worth a look. You can revel in the kitsch, eat well without spending a fortune, and learn cool historical facts about a country and region you likely know little about.

If you are interested in visiting Skopje, check out our post “What You Need To Know When Visiting Skopje, North Macedonia” for helpful tips.

Until Next Time

That’s it for my review of Skopje. As always, Steve and I would love to hear what you think of this unusual city. Do you live in Skopje? Have you been there? Do you agree with my assessment? Let us know!

Happy traveling
Linda

Feature image from Canva

Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: August 2023

Hi there! Can you believe it’s September already? The summer has been flying by for us, but we’re having fun. I hope you are, too.

Steve and I started August with two nights in Brasov, Romania, and spent the remainder in Skopje, North Macedonia.

Check out this monthly update to see our August highlights and low points, what we did, and where we are going. 

All money is in U.S. dollars.

Highlights

Staying at Hotel Belvedere, Brasov

We made a short trip to Brasov to revisit Bran Castle (aka Dracula’s Castle) before leaving Romania. That part of the trip didn’t go as planned, as you’ll read below. However, our hotel in Brasov turned out to be a real gem.

We had a large, comfortable room, but the restaurant was the best part. We arrived at the hotel mid-afternoon and went looking for a late lunch. We were told there wasn’t any food service until 4:00 p.m., and there weren’t any stores or other restaurants nearby. I made do with a granola bar, and Steve sacrificed our last Milka chocolate bar. 

You better believe we were at the restaurant at 4:00. Once we opened the menu, we were hooked. Every option looked so good we could have spent two weeks there and never ordered the same thing twice. 

The food was so delicious and beautifully presented that we ate there on our second night, too. 

Filet mignon with vegetables
Delicious and picture-perfect food at the Hotel Belvedere

Discovering How Much We Like Skopje

Because we knew little about Skopje or the country of North Macedonia, we weren’t sure what to expect. The city is getting on travelers’ radar but still has a way to go before it is well known.

We were blown away. We had a modern, spacious apartment near the city center. It was just a 20-minute walk to the main square. If we walked in the other direction for 20 minutes, there was a large mall with a huge grocery store. There were frequent buses along this street. There was also a small market just a few minutes away.

View of Skopje buildings and mountains
Our morning view

Two things about the city surprised us. The first was the prevalence of English. Almost everyone speaks English. And they speak it well. Signs often have Macedonian, Albanian, and English on them. Information in museums and menus also include English.

The second thing was the lack of crowds. Our apartment overlooked an intersection of two main streets, but there was less traffic and, therefore, less noise than in other cities. It was great to walk on uncrowded sidewalks.

We liked many things about Skopje, but that’s for another post.

Seeing Some Great Museums

We visited several museums and were impressed with their quality, especially the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia and the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Independence. You can read more about these museums and other places we visited here.

For a comprehensive list of things to do in and near Skopje, see “21 Things to Do in Skopje, North Macedonia” by Wander-Lush.

The Macedonian Memorial for Holocaust Victims
A memorial statue outside of the Holocaust Museum

The Holocaust Museum was the best museum we visited in Skopje. There was so much information that even after two hours, we hadn’t seen it all.

A video about Hitler’s rise to power gave me chills, as I can see how easily a society can head down the road to the unimaginable. Yes, I’m talking to you, U.S.A. 

Even though I’ve been to many holocaust museums, I still learned new things. The video showed bonfires where tens of thousands of books written by Jews were burned. It is alarmingly similar to the banning that is going on in parts of the U.S. where books by Black and LGBTQ authors or about Black and LGBTQ issues have been banned.

The other thing I learned was after the liberation of the concentration camps, General Eisenhower invited members of Congress and the press to tour the liberated camps. He did this because he knew words could never express the horrors found there, and so there would be proof, as he feared there would be deniers.

Making a Kitty Friend

There was a pet store on the ground floor of our building, and they had the most adorable kittens. One was orange, and two were grey. After a few days, the grey ones were adopted, but the orange one remained. 

We liked this gentle, affectionate cat so much that we visited him every day. He was still at the pet store when we left Skopje. We hope he gets a loving home soon. 

Two photos of an orange kitten
Our little buddy

Getting Our Second Housesitting Gig

This past spring, we joined Trusted Housesitters, hoping to get some house sits in places that are expensive to visit, like the United Kingdom, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. The idea is that you stay in someone’s home for free while they are away. The offerings almost always involve watching pets. 

Not long after we joined, we got our first gig! We weren’t looking for sits in the U.S., but we came across one in the Town of Tonawanda, New York, where I grew up. Steve grew up in the adjacent village of Kenmore. We will be watching one cat named Niki for 17 nights in February and will be able to visit family in the Western New York Area.

Recently, we arranged a second sit. We will spend 16 nights in Bury St. Edmunds, England, in March while caring for and no doubt falling in love with two dogs, Mollie and Angus. We plan to be low-key during this stay but take advantage of being in England to spend time in Cambridge and London before and after the housesit.

Learning to Ask Airbnb Hosts for What We Want

We are happiest when we have a kitchen with what we call the kitchen trifecta: an oven, a microwave, and a dishwasher. You’d be surprised how many Airbnb listings only have two of these three items.

When we were looking for apartments in Albania and Montenegro, dishwashers were prevalent, but microwaves were virtually non-existent. In two that we booked, we asked the hosts before booking if they would be willing to add a microwave, and both said yes. Because we asked, we even got a good discount on our Jacksonville Airbnb.

When you are staying somewhere for four weeks, the hosts are pretty agreeable to any reasonable request.

Low Points

Getting Rained Out in Bran

The whole point of going to Brasov was to take a day trip to the nearby town of Bran to visit Bran Castle. We had been there on a tour in 2018 but hoped to see more of the castle and the town. 

Bran Castle courtyard
The courtyard in Bran Castle

A receptionist at our hotel said we could get a bus to Bran near the train station, but when we got there, several people told us we had to go to bus station #2. But no one could tell us how to get there. 

I saw people lining up to get on a bus, and I asked if they were going to Bran. The driver said no, but he could take us to the other bus station, and he did so without charging us.

After waiting 50 minutes for our bus and an hour-long drive, we finally got to Bran.

Once at the castle, we wound through it along with what seemed like every other tourist in Romania. Once we were through with the inside, we headed out to explore the grounds and the town, only to be met with a downpour even though no rain was predicted. We waited it out at a café, where I had the least delicious cake I’ve ever eaten.

Our first visit, in 2018, wasn’t the best either. The castle part was alright, but the bus trip from Bucharest and back was longer than expected because of heavy traffic. When we arrived back in Bucharest, it was after 11:00 p.m., and the metro wasn’t running. I remember frantically trying to find a taxi at an intersection of three roads. It took a while, but we finally got one.

If we ever decide to revisit Bran Castle, which seems cursed for us, we will stay in the town of Bran, which, from what little we’ve seen, looks quite charming.

Dealing With SIM Card Issues

On our first day in Skopje, we headed to Telekom (T-Mobile) to get local SIM cards. Even though T-Mobile doesn’t have the best reputation in the U.S., it usually works well overseas. 

We got our SIM cards installed but were unable to log into the app to purchase the package we wanted. It took four days and several phone calls before the company could make that happen. Then, we discovered that the package worked in other Balkan countries but not in North Macedonia.

We switched to Lycamobile and paid a lot less for hassle-free SIM cards.

Dealing With the Heat

The temperature was in the mid-90s almost every day, and the sun was intense. We tried to do outdoor things early in the day or the evening, but because of the heat, there were a few things we didn’t do. One was hiking up Mt. Vodno, and the other was a day trip to Matka Canyon. Perhaps we will do these on a future trip to North Macedonia.

We had spent July in Bucharest, and it was hot there too. Note to self: Next summer, go someplace cool or on the water.

Other Things We Did

Wandered Skopje’s City Center

Steve and I spent many hours taking in the beauty of the city center. Its highlight is the 92-foot or 28-meter tall statue, Warrior on a Horse. It is in Macedonia Square and depicts Alexander the Great on his favorite horse.

Warrior on a Horse statue in Skopje
The Warrior on a Horse statue dominates Macedonia Square

This is only one of the many monuments and statues the city erected as part of its Skopje 2014 project. The project also included constructing many buildings and replacing the facades of others to make the city more attractive to tourists and foster national pride.

Four statues in Skopje
Four statues in Skopje

Gambled

Neither Steve nor I are gamblers. We like to see something for our money. The last time we went to a casino was in 2018 in Bulgaria. We played slots there and had what they termed a “massive win.” It was all of $18.

There are a lot of casinos and slot halls in Skopje, so I figured, “When in Rome.” We spent a few hours at the Flamingo Casino playing the slots. We didn’t win anything, but it only cost us $25, so it was a good way to spend some time when it was too hot to be outside.

Planned a Lot

It’s no secret that travel planning is time-consuming and not much fun, but we bit the bullet and made some serious headway on our plans for the next six months (as you can read about below).

On the Website

After two months of working on a new website design, I decided to put it on hold, get a few posts written, and then try designing a new website using a different theme (the basis of a website).

Instead of considering it a failure, I see it as being several steps closer to creating our new site, since much of what I designed can be used with another theme.

Besides the July 2023 update, I published two new posts, “The Truth About Staying in Airbnbs” and “79 Things to Know When Visiting Skopje, North Macedonia.”

If Skopje interests you, check out our Skopje photo gallery.

Where to next? 

We have our travels pretty much planned through mid-March. This is such a change from how we usually travel, which is to plan one or two months ahead. This time, since we booked a Transatlantic cruise leaving Rome on December 4th, we thought it prudent to plan our stays up to and after the cruise.

Our ship is scheduled to dock in New York City on December 19th, so of course, we had to take advantage of that and spend a few days in the city. Then, we will head to Jacksonville, Florida, to spend Christmas with our daughters and stay for most of January to visit family and friends, see doctors, and stock up on supplies.

Here’s our itinerary so far:

Tirana, AlbaniaAug. 31 – Sept. 28
Podgorica, MontenegroSept. 28 – Oct. 26
Kotor, MontenegroOct. 26 – Nov. 24
Rome, ItalyNov. 24- Dec. 4
CruiseDec. 4 – Dec. 19
New York CityDec. 19 – Dec. 23
Jacksonville, FloridaDec. 23 – Jan. 20
OPENJan. 20 – Feb. 9
Tonawanda, New YorkFeb. 9 – Feb. 27
OPENFeb. 27 – Mar. 5
Bury St. Edmunds, EnglandMar. 5 – Mar. 21

Until Next Time

That’s it for our monthly update for August. As always, Steve and I would love to hear about your travels and thoughts about this post.

Happy traveling,
Linda

What You Need to Know When Visiting Skopje, North Macedonia

If you’re looking for somewhere unique and inexpensive to visit in Europe, consider Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. This Balkan city is uncrowded and easy to get around. Its city center is a sight to see, with larger-than-life monuments, random statues, ornate bridges, and elegant buildings, thanks to the Skopje 2014 project (more on that below).

Steve and I ended up in Skopje in August 2023 for two reasons. One, we needed to find a place to visit outside the Schengen Area due to its visa restrictions. Two, I had read about the Skopje 2014 project and was intrigued.

We enjoyed our four weeks in Skopje. Now, I am happy to share what we learned while visiting Skopje so you can have an enjoyable visit too.

All money is in U.S. dollars

About Skopje

1. About 500,000 people live in Skopje.

2. Skopje is not crowded. There are 3,700 people per square mile. Compare this to New York City, with 29,000 people per square mile or 8,800 people per square mile in Budapest (data from Wikipedia). The only place we saw crowds was in the Old Bazaar, but even that wasn’t bad.

3. On July 26, 1963, an earthquake destroyed almost 80% of the city’s buildings and killed over 1,000 people.

4. The city is surrounded by mountains.

5. Macedonia Square is the center of the city. Visit it to see architecture, statues, fountains, and restaurants in a vibrant setting.

6. We saw little street art, but far too much graffiti.

7. The Vardar River runs through the city. The water level was low when we were there, and the section that runs through the city center had a lot of debris.

Vardar River view Skopje
Two lovely buildings, Skopje Fortress, and graffiti flank the Vardar River

About North Macedonia

8. Two million people call North Macedonia home.

9. The country’s official name is the Republic of North Macedonia.

10. The Republic of North Macedonia is a young country. It declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

11. Upon gaining independence, the country was named the Republic of Macedonia. Because there is a geographic region in Greece by the same name, the Greek government took issue with this. After 27 years, the official name became the Republic of North Macedonia. You can read more about this here.

Culture

12. Most stores and many restaurants are closed on Sunday.

13. About 60% of North Macedonians are Orthodox Christian. More than 30% are Muslim.

14. There are a lot of casinos and slot halls in Skopje.

15. I was impressed with the lack of pressure from vendors in the Old Bazaar. One storekeeper asked us if we would like to be his customers, but most let us walk by without comment if we didn’t show interest in their products. It is such a contrast to Morocco, where the taxi drivers grab your luggage and demand to know where you are going, and the vendors make leeches look timid.

16. Most stores, restaurants, and attractions will be closed during holidays. Holidayapi.com can help you see which holidays may impact your visit. Keep in mind: if a holiday falls on a weekend, businesses may be closed the Friday before or the Monday after.

The Skopje 2014 Project

17. The Skopje 2014 project took place from 2010 to 2014.

18. During this time, many new buildings were constructed, and others were renovated. Giant monuments and smaller statues were erected throughout the city center.

19. The project was intended to make the city more attractive to tourists and boost the national identity.

20. The project’s centerpiece is the majestic Warrior on a Horse monument in Macedonia Square. The warrior represented is Alexander the Great, but because of tensions with Greece over what they perceive to be the appropriation of Greek culture, the statue is not referred to as Alexander the Great.

The Warrior on a Horse statue in Skopje
The Warrior on a Horse statue in Macedonia Square

Language

21. Macedonian is the official language of North Macedonia.

22. Almost everyone speaks English. And they speak it well. The exception would be some of the older people.

23. Signs pointing to places of interest are in Macedonian, English, and Albanian.

24. It’s always nice to learn a few words, such as hello, please, and thank you, in the local language. However, you probably won’t use them much since English is so prevalent. If you need to communicate in Macedonian, an app like Google Translate should do the trick.

Communication

25. The European emergency number is 112. The operators speak English, which I learned when I had to call after getting stuck in an elevator in Bulgaria.

26. If you are looking for a local SIM card, the three main providers are Telekom (T Mobile), A1, and Lycamobile.

27. If you need a local SIM card, I recommend Lycamobile. We got our cards at Lycamobile POS Doctor Mobile on Blvd. Partizanski Odredi. For $3.50, we got 5GB of data for 30 days. Since we have wifi in our Airbnb, 5GB is more than enough for exploring the city.

28. I would advise you to stay away from Telekom. Their prices are much higher than Lycamobile’s, and many of their packages have to be purchased through the app. This would be fine, but neither Steve nor I could register on the app. It refused to accept our email addresses. It took four days to get corporate to install the package we chose, only to discover it was useless in North Macedonia. The package was called the Balkan package. It works in other Balkan countries but not in North Macedonia.

29. I can’t speak to the quality of A1. We tried to buy SIM cards at their store in Skopje City Mall and were shocked to find they didn’t have any left that day. This has never happened to us before.

30. The above experience is why you should always do your homework and know what data package you want. We got lazy, and it cost us time and money.

Money

31. The Macedonian denar is the official money in North Macedonia. Its currency symbol is MKD.

32. As of August 2023, 1,000 MDK = ~$18.00.

33. Credit cards are widely accepted.

34. Euro were required in the Flamingo Casino. If you don’t have any, you can change your denar in the casino.

35. North Macedonia does not have a tipping culture. If you do want to tip (we always do because it’s so ingrained in us), 10% – 15% is recommended in restaurants. I would use this as a guide for other times when service has been exceptional.

Getting Around

36. Most streets don’t have street name signs, but Google Maps worked well everywhere we went.

37. Uber and Lyft are not available in Skopje. There are plenty of taxis, but it is best to negotiate the price upfront.

38. Public buses were plentiful and easy to use with a map app like Google Maps or Moveit.

39. Bus stops are not consistent. Some have shelters, some are designated by the word “bus” painted on the street, and further away from the center, they can be hard to identify. Some stops have displays showing the time until buses arrive. Many do not. The map apps helped a lot in these situations.

40. The Skopska app is the best way to use the bus. You can buy a single ticket or a weekly or monthly pass. We paid $29.00 each for our monthly passes.

41. Using the Skopska app on the bus can be tricky. Once you’ve pushed the button on the app to use your ticket, you will hear a soft noise. You need to hold your phone up to the validation box with the screen facing the box until you see eight little dots load on the box’s screen.

42. For our first several bus rides, we had no idea how to use the app. After we figured it out, we had no wifi for a few days. We hoped that if we were questioned, it would be enough if we showed we had purchased a monthly pass. We never saw any inspectors on the buses.

Validation screen and validation machine for Skopje buses
The screen on your app and the validation machine on the bus

43. Buses come in several shapes and colors. There are single and double-decker buses. They are usually red but may be other colors because they are covered with ads. Some of the buses are very old.

44. Some buses have the bus number in lights at the top and some have it on a piece of cardboard in the lower corner of the front passenger side window.

45. Watch your head on the upper level of the double-decker buses unless you’re a shorty like me. The ceiling is low.

46. We found the city to be very walkable, partly because of how close together the main attractions are and partly because the streets and sidewalks weren’t crowded.

47. Most streets have crosswalks painted on them. If there is no traffic light, all you have to do is step off the curb, and traffic should stop, even on busy streets with several lanes. Still, you should look both ways and use caution; bikes and scooters don’t always stop.

48. If there is a traffic light, obey the walk/don’t walk signs.

49. Bikes and scooters are popular, so it’s best to walk outside the bike lanes and cross bike lanes like you cross a street. Look both ways.

50. Look over your shoulder before moving left or right on the sidewalk (like you do when changing lanes while driving). Despite having designated bike lanes, bikes and scooters are often ridden on the sidewalk, and the riders seldom warn you when they want to pass. Motorcycles and cars occasionally drive on the sidewalks, too.

Food and Water

51. The tap water is safe to drink; however, it is very hard. We used a filtered pitcher to get clearer water.

52. We aren’t adventurous about trying different foods, but here is an article by Nomad Paradise about Macedonian food.

Restaurants

53. The restaurant prices were the lowest we’ve seen in quite a while. They are affordable enough that you can eat at places right in the city center and still get a great deal. The prices for drinks were similar to what we’ve seen in other Central and Eastern European cities.

54. There is a row of welcoming-looking restaurants along the river in the city center. We ate at three of them. All were reasonably priced, the service was excellent, and the food was pretty good.

55. Restaurant Dion  – We enjoyed the food here. We both had the chicken crown.

Chicken in curry sauce with potatoes and carrots
The Chicken Crown – chicken filled with mozzarella and prosciutto and covered in curry sauce

56. Buenos Dias – the helpings were huge, despite the photos showing smaller amounts. While the quality of the food was good, our dishes were a little bland.

57. Carpe Diem  – We had a light lunch here. Steve had pasta; I had a salad. Both were okay, but nothing special.

58. We also ate at Restaurant Pelister on Macedonia Square. We both had sausage stew, which was not bad.

Restaurant Pelister in Skopje
The terrace at Restaurant Pelister

59. The restaurant we loved was Amigos. It is just a short walk from Macedonia Square. We had the fajitas for two for $14.00. My classic margaritas were the best margaritas I’ve ever had.

60. For a tasty and inexpensive takeout, try Plaset (there are several around the city). We enjoyed the chicken durum, which comes with your choice of toppings and sauces. It comes in three sizes.

Shopping

61. We frequented two supermarkets, Ramstore and Vero. Both are large and have a wide variety of products. We started out at Ramstore in the Skopje City Mall but found that too many items weren’t priced, and the store wasn’t as clean as the Vero supermarket.

62. We preferred the Vero store at the corner of New Delhi Rd and Mitropolit Teodosij Gologanov.

63. If you’re close to the city center, check out the Vero store in Shopping Center Vero.

64. Bags are not provided at grocery stores. You can either buy them at the checkout counter or bring your own.

65. You have to bag your own groceries, and there isn’t a separate area to do this like we’ve seen in other cities. This can be challenging if you’re alone, and it always reminds me of this scene from I Love Lucy:

Hungry Cbs GIF by Paramount+ - Find & Share on GIPHY

66. Pharmacies are indicated by a green cross. In addition to prescription medicine, you can buy over-the-counter medication here, too.

67. DM is your best bet for toiletries, household cleaners, and personal care items.

68. If markets are more your style, check out Bit Pazar at the northern end of the Old Bazaar. The vendors here sell pretty much every cheap thing you can imagine. The largest fresh food market in Skopje is also located here.

69. You can find smaller fresh food markets throughout the city, like the one down the street from our apartment. It is in a seedy structure, but the produce is good, and the vendors are friendly. It is at Boulevard Partizanski Odredi 26.

Things to See and Do

The Old Bazaar

70. Skopje’s Old Bazaar is huge and has something for everyone. Steve and I spent some time wandering what we thought was the Old Bazaar, only to learn we were actually in the Bit Pazar. It turns out that the Old Bazaar is an area of many blocks lined with shops, cafes, and restaurants. Learn more about the oldest marketplace in the Balkans in this article by Wander-Lush.

Skopje Fortress

71. This fortress, also called the Kale Fortress, is worth a brief exploration. It is free to enter, and you can explore it on your own. There isn’t any written information at the fortress.

Skopje Fortress wall
You can walk the walls of the fortress and enjoy some city views

Mt. Vodno

72. You can recognize Mt. Vodno by the large cross on top of it. This is the Millennium Cross. It was erected in 2002 to commemorate 2,000 years of Christianity in Macedonia.

73. You can hike up Mt. Vodno or take the Millennium Cross Cable Car to the top.

Museums

74. The museums we visited had almost everything explained in English as well as Macedonian.

75. The Archaeological Museum of Macedonia – Even if you aren’t interested in archaeology, at less than $3.00 per person, it’s worth it to see the inside of the building with its grey and white marble staircase and the striking way the artifacts are displayed. That’s the Archaeological Museum in the featured photo.

Exhibition hall in the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia
One of the stylish exhibit halls in the Archaeology Museum of Macedonia

76. The Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia – This is another excellent museum. There is so much information that even after spending two hours there, we couldn’t take it all in. It cost us less than $2.00 per person to enter.

Large photo collage of Holocaust victims
The exhibit at the entrance of the museum

77. The Mother Teresa Memorial House – This small museum is free to enter. It showcases important moments and documents from Mother Teresa’s life. There is a small, pretty chapel on the second floor.

Statue of Mother Teresa
A statue of Mother Teresa watching over her museum

78. The Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Independence – This museum documents the struggle for independence from the late 19th through the mid-20th century. Huge paintings of historical events and nicely done wax figures are an impressive touch. The ticket price of around $5.00 includes a guide if you wish. Our guide did a great job, but we had some trouble understanding him because of his accent. The entrance is on the side of the building away from the river. Their website is only in Macedonian, and we could only take photos in the lobby.

79. For even more things to do in and near Skopje, see “21 Things to Do in Skopje, North Macedonia” by Wander-Lush.

In Summary

To see more of Skopje, check out our post “Skopje, North Macedonia Photo Gallery.”

Skopje has some flaws, but if you can look past them, you will be rewarded with some wonderful museums, beautiful buildings, magnificent monuments, and quirky statues. English is prevalent, which gives you a break from language stress, and your dollar goes far. Skopje is a winner.

Until Next Time

Do you live in Skopje, or have you visited it? If so, Steve and I would love to hear what you think about it and if I left anything out. Just drop a comment in the comment section below.

If you’re planning to visit Budapest, check out our post, “75 Things to Know When Visiting Budapest.”

Happy traveling,
Linda

The Truth About Staying in Airbnbs

A sure sign of success is when your competitors gear their ads toward disparaging you. In the summer of 2022, the vacation rental company VRBO released a series of ads stressing that with VRBO, you and your family get the whole house to yourself. The campaign was called “Only Your People.” Here is one of the ads:

I find it odd that VRBO would spend money on this slam against Airbnb (although it is never mentioned by name). Anyone who has used Airbnb knows they offer many rentals where you get the whole place to yourself, and they offer top-end homes like the ones shown in the VRBO ads. You can also filter your search for self-check-in properties if you are strongly opposed to talking with someone who isn’t “your people.”

But hey, it’s their money.

Hilton Hotels also got a dig at Airbnb (again without naming names) with an ad showing a family arriving at a spooky house on the requisite dark and stormy night. As they approach the front door, the dad says, “Huh, it looked different online.” As they enter the house, they are met with a list of ridiculous rules. The family screams after a creepy doll says gesundheit when the daughter sneezes. But all ends well when they check into a Hilton hotel. You, the viewer, are then reminded that it matters where you stay. Check it out:

Airbnb has faced quite a bit of criticism lately, some of it deserved. They have been accused of driving up rents and forcing residents out of neighborhoods. People on Facebook threads are quick to mention high cleaning costs and hosts who impose too many rules.

Having stayed in over 40 Airbnbs during the past five years, Steve and I remain strong supporters of the company. As full-time travelers who keep a sharp eye on the budget, here is the truth about staying in Airbnbs as we see it.

All money is in USD

The Best Things About Airbnb

The Cost

Even if the other reasons in this list didn’t apply, we would still use Airbnb because hotels can’t come close to providing what an Airbnb rental does for the money.

With Airbnb, we can rent apartments with separate bedrooms, full kitchens, and clothes washers. Since we often stay in one place for four weeks, these things are important.

In the past year, we’ve had seven four-week-long stays with an average nightly cost of less than $60. These included stays in Greece, Morocco, Croatia, and Romania.

Comforts of Home

Even if you find a hotel with kitchen facilities, they will likely be limited. Our Airbnbs have a full kitchen with a full-size refrigerator, an oven, a microwave, and a stovetop. We often have a dishwasher.

While it is hit or miss when it comes to cooking supplies, most hosts do a good job of anticipating their guests’ needs. When we need a tool that isn’t available, we can find it inexpensively at a local store.

Our Airbnbs have entire living rooms, not just a few chairs set to the side, and separate bedrooms.

A modern living room and a view of a pool from above
Two of our best Airbnbs: Medellin, Colombia, and San Jose, Costa Rica

Great for Groups

Airbnb is especially great for groups since it is easier and cheaper to find a listing with several bedrooms than it is to find a large hotel suite. Even when Steve and I travel with our two daughters, we prefer it so they can each have a bedroom.

Good Quality Accommodations

Airbnb started as a place to get a room in someone’s home. The offerings have grown to include many elegant and modern listings. Even on a tight budget, the choices are pretty nice.

We have never had an uncomfortable bed, but we have had some less-than-comfortable sofas. Now we check the photos to ensure the sofa isn’t too simple; no futons or armless seats for us.

Helpful Hosts

Overall, our hosts have been superb. They have provided what they advertised and made themselves available to answer questions and address issues.

When we arrived in Pula, Croatia, for a 28-day stay, the host showed us around the apartment. I noticed there wasn’t a clothes washer, even though it was on the listing. I pointed this out, and the host asked if it was important to us. He said there was a laundromat around the corner. I told him that doesn’t work for us as we have very few clothes and do laundry often, and we don’t wish to spend time sitting in a laundromat. He understood, and the next day a washer was in place.

This turned out to be an honest mistake. The host had several listings and apparently copied the information from another listing.

We recently booked an apartment in Tirana, Albania. It didn’t have a microwave, so before we booked, we asked the host if he could provide one. He said yes.

We don’t bother our host for minor things like a dirty air conditioning filter or a hair-clogged drain, and we have had excellent responses when there has been a bigger problem.

Diverse Choices

Do you fancy a stay on a sailboat? Or perhaps a tree house is more your style. While hotel rooms may vary a little, there is only so much a hotel can do to make its offerings unique. Airbnb is full of variety.

Marina
The marina where we stayed on a sailboat for two weeks

Good Cancelation Policy

When we started using Airbnb in 2018, any stays of 28 days or more were non-cancelable. Since that is what we generally booked, we accepted this risk as part of traveling. The only time this was a problem was when Steve was laid up with a broken pelvis, and we couldn’t visit Kyiv. I let the host know, and he credited back part of our stay as he was able to rebook it.

Lately, we’ve noticed that most long-term stays allow cancelations, usually up to one month before the start of the reservation.

The Not-So-Great Things

Now that I’ve finished singing the praises of Airbnb, let’s talk about the not-so-great things.

Search Time

Steve and I spend hours researching every Airbnb we book. When we first started renting Airbnbs, we didn’t know what to look for, and we ended up in some less-than-ideal ones.  Over time, we have learned what to look for. And our methods keep evolving.

For example, when we booked a pleasant-looking apartment in a new building in Istanbul, we were pleased to find it was in a block of other new buildings. We were not so pleased that everything else, in every direction, was a slum. And this was after we had been traveling for more than four years. After that experience, we began using Google Maps street view to check out the neighborhood.

I would love to see Airbnb add a comparison feature to decrease guests’ search time.

Two views of Istanbul
Photo on left: our building next to the Cher Hotel; Photo on right: our view

Learn more about our rough start and how to find the best Airbnbs in “5 Tips for Finding the Best Airbnb Rentals.”

Disappointing Showers

If you can’t live without long, hot showers, Airbnbs may not be your best bet. We’ve found the shower quality to be lacking.

Our first Airbnb was in Barcelona. It had a small shower stall and, even worse, a small water heater. After a short while, the water would turn cold, and you had to turn it off and let the water reheat. This had to be done several times during one shower.

But the worst was when I slipped and hit the faucet after the water had reheated. I got a blast of scalding hot water, and because the stall was so small, I couldn’t step aside.

We’ve had a few Airbnbs with a limited amount of hot water and one in which the water never got more than lukewarm, even after the host sent someone over to check on it. We suspect he was not a plumber.

Our first Athens Airbnb required us to turn on the water heater half an hour before showering. The second Athens Airbnb was the one we stayed in with our daughters. None of us were happy that the shower hose was hand-held. We did manage to tie it to the towel bar but don’t understand why it wasn’t attached to the wall.

When we get a good shower, we savor it. Ironically, one of our worst Airbnbs (in Paris) had the best shower and the only one we’ve ever had in which we could set the water temperature.

Hosts’ Lack of Attention to Details

The Airbnbs we’ve rented have consistently been clean on the surface. The furniture is dusted. The floors are washed. The bathrooms and kitchens are clean, and the bedding and towels are fresh. Unfortunately, many hosts fail to take cleaning a step further.

We aren’t clean freaks, but we do have standards. We often have to scrub pots and pans, clean ovens, wipe out silverware drawers, clean air conditioning and air vent filters, and clean hair from shower drains. We rarely find a vacuum that has been emptied after the last user.

The worst was a wooden cutting board that someone had put away wet. It had mushrooms growing on it. The host was with us when we found it, and she was surprised and embarrassed. She replaced it the same day.

I don’t think hosts are purposely ignoring these things. I think it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind. But frankly, you’d be surprised at the number of people who put dirty pans in cabinets.

Four photos of Airbnb problems
Just a few of the things that our hosts should have addressed before we arrived

Hosts Not Being Proactive

Along with failing to check on hidden items, hosts often fail to fix little things or wait to fix them after we check in. In one apartment, the outlet cover and wires were hanging off the wall in plain view, but it wasn’t fixed until we pointed it out to the host.

The Airbnb we rented in Casablanca had electronic exterior shutters. The one over the bedroom window was broken, and there was only a sheer drape over the window. This wasn’t a privacy problem since we were on a high floor and no one could see in, but it meant the room wasn’t dark at night.

It didn’t bother us, but one day the host messaged us asking if he could send someone over to install an opaque curtain in the bedroom. We said sure, and a young man showed up with a curtain he installed in front of the sheer. This one was sheer, too, not opaque, so it didn’t do much to block light.

It would also be appreciated if hosts would replace burned-out light bulbs and dead remote batteries before guests arrive and leave a few spare bulbs and batteries in case the guests need them during their stay.

Lack of Consistency in Lodgings

With hotels, you pretty much know what to expect, especially if you book with a chain. With Airbnb, there is no telling what you will find. Luckily, we’ve never seen anything frightening or embarrassing, but our Airbnb in Rabat, Morocco, did have some serious issues with the electricity that required several visits by the handyman.

We stayed in a few places that were cluttered with the host’s belongings. One place had a loft above part of the living room, which would have been cool, but the ceiling wasn’t high enough for you to stand up in it. Minor, but still weird, one apartment had picture frames without any pictures in them.

The Wifi is Usually Sub-Par

We haven’t spent much time using hotel wifi, but the wifi in Airbnbs is often undependable. I don’t know how much of this is because of the hosts’ choice of service and how much is because of the services available in that location, but outages are not uncommon.

The other issue is security. Every single one we have used has weak security. Because of this, we use ExpressVPN.

The Average Price is Meaningless

When you search for a place to stay, you can set your filters, including your price range. At the top of this page, you will see the average price of Airbnbs for your time frame and location. There is one big problem with this.

One host in Jacksonville had 89 properties listed. The most expensive 15 had an average price of over $100,000 per month. The highest was $716,000 for one month! None of these were worth what was being asked.

If Airbnb is going to allow these outrageous prices to be listed, they should at least show us the mean price, as these outliers are skewing the average.

Common Airbnb Complaints

I found a video by Retirement Travelers talking about why they quit using Airbnb. They bring up a lot of good points, and given their travel style, it makes sense that hotels are a better option. Check it out here:

Here is my take on some of the issues John and Bev discussed in their video:

Higher Prices on Short-Term Stays

I totally agree with this. We have gotten fantastic deals on long-term Airbnb stays, but for shorter stays, we haven’t seen the savings. Even so, if the price of an Airbnb for a short stay is similar to that of a hotel, we compare the benefits and drawbacks of each.

High Cleaning Fees

John and Bev mention that some cleaning fees seem high. I have also seen this complaint on Facebook several times. Does it matter? All I am interested in is what I will be paying in total.

No Loyalty Program

I agree. It would be wonderful if Airbnb showed appreciation to their frequent users like hotel chains often do.

Scary Elevators or No Elevators

Absolutely. We’ve stayed in multiple buildings with tiny, old elevators. I refused to get into the one in our building in Paris. Sometimes there is no elevator. This is one of the factors we weigh when choosing a place.

In fairness, we have also stayed in hotels and B&Bs that didn’t have elevators. Our room in the last hotel on our Dales Way adventure was on the third floor. We had the pleasure of lugging our suitcases up the stairs after having just completed an eight-day, 81-mile walk.

Bugs

In all our Airbnb stays, we only had one bug problem. That was in Rabat, Morocco, where the roach traps were a clue. We should have walked away from that place, as it had many issues, not just bugs, but the pickings in the city were pretty slim, so we toughed it out. Our review was pretty brutal, though.

A Chore List for Guests

I’ve seen this complaint on Facebook as well. Maybe it is common where John and Bev traveled, but we have never experienced this in European countries, Morocco, Turkey, or the U.S. The most we’ve seen regarding rules are the expected: no smoking inside, no parties, quiet hours, and a request to turn off the air conditioning or heat when you leave the lodging. No one has ever asked us to do chores, although we make it a point to leave the place as good or better than we found it.

The Final Price is Hidden

This has been fixed. Now, if you toggle “display total price,” you will see the total cost before taxes on the first page of listings. Very seldom have we had taxes on our choices.

Disappointment with the Place

Like John and Bev, we’ve had some disappointing Airbnbs. Also, like them, we partially blame ourselves.

The few bad ones we’ve had were mostly when we were new to Airbnb and were easily seduced by pretty photos or a low price. We’d like to think that we have gotten better at analyzing the listings, but even our best efforts failed us in Morocco.

Even so, there is no substitute for doing your homework when deciding on an Airbnb.

If your choice turns out to be horrible, you have the option of walking away. It is important to do it quickly, first by letting your host know about the problems. If the host doesn’t solve them, get Airbnb involved asap.

In Summary

Airbnb can be a wonderful way to be comfortable and save money when traveling, especially long-term. But it has drawbacks, including how long it takes to sort through the listings. For us, it continues to be a great option for long-term stays. We hope that will continue in the future.

Until Next Time

As always, we would love to hear your thoughts on this post. Just drop a note in the comments section below. If you found this information helpful, please consider sharing this post using the share buttons at the top.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Featured photo by Chris Robert on Unsplash.com

Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: July 2023

Hi there! It’s time for another monthly update. I hope you are surviving the summer heat. Steve and I spent most of July in Bucharest, Romania, where it was hot but, thankfully, not too humid. Even so, we didn’t do as much as planned since we were lazy about getting out before the days got too hot.

We enjoyed four visits to Therme Bucuresti, though. It was a great way to cool off and get some pampering. More on that below.

During the last five days of the month, we were in Sinaia, Romania, a two-hour train ride north of Bucharest. Here are the highlights and low points of the month.

Highlights

Therme Bucuresti

This was our second visit to Bucharest. The first was in 2018. That is when we discovered Therme Bucuresti. This wellness center gorgeously combines thermal and mineral pools, saunas, waterslides, and a botanical garden. Check out our post about this must-visit place.

A large indoor swimming pool
Therme was just as stunning and hedonistic as we remembered

Each visit was over four hours long. Steve spent his time relaxing and dozing in the outdoor pool and the mineral pools, or the chemical baths, as he calls them. I spent my time whizzing down the waterslides, stretching in the water exercise classes, enjoying a heavenly massage, and of course, relaxing in the thermal water.

Don’t miss Therme when visiting Romania, and if you find yourself near Munich, check out Therme Erding.

The lucky folks in Manchester, England, will get to experience Therme close to home in 2025. Judging by the website, it promises to be as good, if not better, than Therme Bucuresti.

The Tiriac Collection

Four photos of expensive cars
Look at these beauties

Steve and I love discovering hidden gems. This usually occurs by chance, and finding the Tiriac Collection was no exception. We were on our way home from Therme when Steve spotted it. After a quick check on Google, we knew we had to visit. I am surprised that this isn’t on more peoples’ radar. I’ve never seen it on a “things to do in Bucharest” list, although it isn’t actually in Bucharest, it is in the adjacent town of Otopeni. It is an eight-minute drive from Therme.

The Tiriac Collection showcases over 200 cars owned by Romanian businessman Ion Tiriac. He is a former professional tennis and hockey player. The collection has vehicles from 1899 to the present. It spans manufacturers and includes a few motorcycles.

Dinner with New Friends

One Sunday, Steve took an Uber to a flea market and struck up a conversation with Felix, the driver. We then had a lovely dinner with Felix and his partner, Ionela. Both work in real estate and are warm and fun-loving. We ate at Hanu’ lui Manuc, a traditional Romanian restaurant in the oldest operating hotel in the city. We had some tasty food and good company and enjoyed traditional music and dancing.

Seeing the Sights

Palace of Parliament

Budapest’s Palace of Parliament
The massive and stately Palace of Parliament

At 9 billion pounds or 4.1 billion kilograms, the white marble Palace of Parliament is the heaviest building in the world. It was started under the direction of the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was inspired by a visit to North Korea in 1971. Construction began in 1984 and finished in 1997.

Because of its weight, the building sinks 6 mm or ¼ inch each year.

The chief architect was a woman named Anca Petrescu, who was only 29 years old at the start of the project.

Ceausescu never saw the finished building as he and his wife Elena were executed on Christmas Day 1989. You can learn more about the rise and fall of Ceausescu here.

Cotroceni National Museum

This museum is part of the Cotroceni Palace, home to the Romanian President. The palace was built in the 1890s and was occupied by the royal family. After WWII, it was renamed Pioneer Palace and was the home of the Pioneers organization, which indoctrinated children into the communist ideology.

A 1977 earthquake severely damaged the palace. It has been rebuilt, staying true to the original style. Each room we saw was unique, and all were exquisite.

Entrance hall in the Cotroceni Palace
The entrance hall in the palace

In 1978, Ceausescu visited Queen Elizabeth in London. This was the first time a communist head of state had visited the U.K. When he returned to Bucharest, he had two rooms refurbished in an elegant French style with the hopes that Queen Elizabeth would visit Bucharest. She didn’t.

Here is a fun article from The Independent about how Queen Elizabeth hid in some bushes to avoid speaking with Ceausescu and his wife.

The National Museum of Art of Romania

This art museum is in a former royal palace and displays Romanian and European art in two large halls. Frankly, the artwork was the least impressive we have seen in museums of this size.

There is also a section of the museum called the historic spaces. We were expecting artifacts in glass cases and were tempted to skip it. We are glad we didn’t. This area is part of the former palace with several majestic rooms and a spectacular staircase. I particularly loved the yellow marble used in the entrance hall and upper hall.

Two photos from inside the National Museum of Art of Romania
A staircase in the former royal palace and an exhibit of 16th-century icons

Two Beautiful Bookstores

Bucharest is the home of Carturesti Carusel, which is often found on lists of the most beautiful bookstores in the world.

Carturesti is a Romanian bookstore chain. While the Carusel store is their most elegant and popular, we stumbled across another impressive store, Carturesti Verona. As we were walking one evening, we noticed a run-down-looking, squatty building that we thought might be a library or a bookstore. We were entranced once we entered. Despite the small façade, the store is huge.

Carturesti Carusel and Carturesti Verona
Carturesti Carusel and Carturesti Verona

This former home was built in the mid-19th century. Each room has something to delight you, from the architecture to the furnishings to the products. In addition to tons of books, many in English, you can find music, art and travel supplies, games, wine, clothes, and household products. As Steve observed, you could do all your Christmas shopping in this store.

A Short Stop in Sinaia

Way back in 2018, Steve and I took a tour from Bucharest to the town of Bran, where Bran Castle (aka Dracula’s Castle) is located. Along the way, we drove through a town called Sinaia. It was so charming that I never forgot it. When we found ourselves back in Romania, visiting Sinaia was a must.

The main draw in Sinaia is Peles Castle. This mind-blowing beauty was built by Romania’s first king, King Carol I. It was completed in 1883, and its amenities were state of the art. It even had an electric retracting skylight.

The castle has so much detail it’s hard to know where to look first. You can take a guided tour, but we explored on our own. Peles Castle is a big draw in Romania, so it is always crowded.

The Great Hall in Peles Castle
The Great Hall in Peles Castle

Peles Castle isn’t the only cool place to explore in Sinaia. There is the smaller Pelisor Castle, built by King Ferdinand I, the nephew and heir of King Carol I (the king and his wife only had one child, a daughter who died when she was four). Pelisor Castle isn’t as impressive as Peles Castle, but it is only a three-minute walk between the two, so it’s worth a stop if you have the time.

Stirby Castle is a small building near the center of town. It was build in the mid-1800s as a summer home for the Romanian aristocracy and is now a museum and hotel. At first, it didn’t seem like there was much to see, but once we entered the lower level, there was an eclectic collection of Romanian history we found interesting.

Sinaia Monastery, which is over 300 years old and is still home to a few monks, and Dimitrie Ghica Park in the town center were also great places to explore.

For a change of pace, we took the Sinaia Gondola 6,700 feet or 2,000 meters up the Bucegi Mountains. The views were some of the best we’ve seen on gondola rides, and the cooler air, at 18°C or 59°F, was a nice change.

Toy hedgehog on a fencepost in the mountains
Hedgemeister enjoying the mountain views

Low Points

The Propped-Up Table

Airbnb allows us to travel comfortably and economically. We spend hours combing over the listings for our long-term stays, but no matter how careful we are, there is often some minor problem with our choice.

This time it was the kitchen table. Our apartment was large, but the kitchen was small. From the photos, we could see that there wasn’t much counter space, but there was a four-person glass-topped table in the kitchen that could be used for additional work space.

When Steve moved one of the chairs, the table started to fall because one of the legs was loose. Fortunately, it didn’t fall far, but we were afraid to use it. The owner replaced it, but it is maddening that it wasn’t replaced before we got to Bucharest. It’s possible he didn’t know about the broken leg, but we see this type of oversight too often.

The Heat

You would think living in Florida for 30 years would have acclimated us to the heat. That doesn’t appear to be the case. Like many places, Bucharest experienced above-normal temperatures in July. Many days the highs were above 32°C or 90°F, and on a few days it hit 38°C or 100°F. We had the best intentions to get out early, but many days we decided to stay in. Since we spent a month in Bucharest in 2018, we had already seen many of the highlights.

I told Steve I felt guilty about not doing more this time. He reminded me that we chose this location as part of our 90 days outside the Schengen Area (no offense to this fine city). We have stayed busy: Steve with his new interest, genealogy, and me with the website redesign.

Because it is in the mountains, the temperature in Sinaia was much lower than in Bucharest. Perhaps we should have spent more time there.

On the Website

Work on the new Wind and Whim website has kept me busy, so I only had one new post in July. It is a love letter to the small town of Opatija, Croatia.

Where to Next?

We will spend the first few days of August in Brasov, Romania. The main reason for this stop is to revisit Bran Castle, aka Dracula’s Castle. We visited it on a tour in 2018, but this time we will be on our own so we can explore more of the area.

For the rest of August, we will be in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. North Macedonia was part of Yugoslavia and gained independence in 1991.

The main attraction in Skopje is its statues. In 2010, the government started an initiative to make the city more attractive to tourists and boost the national identity. The project was named Skopje 2014. It included the construction or remodeling of dozens of buildings and the installation of over 100 statues.

The results have not been embraced by all. The city has been compared to Las Vegas, referred to as the capital of kitsch, and nicknamed Disneyland Balkans by Ashley on Global Dreaming. I look forward to seeing the buildings and finding as many statues as possible.

But Skopje has more to offer. There is the Old Bazaar, dating back to the 12th century, hiking on Mt. Vodno and the Matka Canyon, and side trips to Kosovo. Skopje is also the birthplace of Mother Teresa.

You may wonder what led us to choose North Macedonia and Albania. The answer is simple: the Schengen Area rules. As I’ve discussed in several other posts, the Schengen Area, which consists of 27 European countries, allows unrestricted movement between the member countries. Sounds great, right?

It’s not so great for long-term travelers and digital nomads, though. As U.S. citizens, we can only spend 90 out of every 180 days in the Schengen Area. This restriction has led us to visit places we may not have otherwise chosen, like Morocco, Bulgaria, and Romania. It even led us to Croatia, a country we adore, in 2018. As of 2023, Croatia is in the Schengen Area, and Romania and Bulgaria will become part of it in 2024.

Until Next Time

Steve and I hope you enjoyed catching up with our travels. Please use the comment section below to tell us about your summer adventures.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Why You’ll Fall in Love with Opatija, Croatia

If you love captivating natural beauty, amazing architecture, and gorgeous gardens, check out Opatija, Croatia.

Steve and I visited Opatija at the end of May, before the height of the tourist season. It was busy enough to be interesting without being crowded. The weather was warm and mostly sunny.

This seaside town of less than 12,000 residents on the Adriatic Sea is the perfect place for a restorative break. As is fitting for the area, most people were strolling or relaxing by the water. Read on to learn why you will fall in love with Opatija.

All money is in U.S. dollars.

But First, Where is Opatija?

Opatija is a small town on the eastern side of the Istrian Peninsula. It sits on the Kvarner Gulf (sometimes called the Kvarner Bay) at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea. It is easy to reach by car or bus in a few hours from several larger cities, including Pula, Croatia, Trieste, Italy, and Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Map showing the location of Opatija, Croatia

A Few Opatija Facts

*How do you pronounce Opatija? uh·PAH·tuh·yuh The Croatian letter “J” is pronounced like the English “Y.”

*Modern-day Opatija began in the mid-1800s when a wealthy merchant, Ignio Scarpa, built the Villa Angiolina. Other wealthy families, including aristocrats, soon built vacation villas there. You can see these stately summer homes all around town.

*Opatija was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1867–1918.

*Opatija has a Mediterranean climate. The summer season runs from mid-June to mid-September. Here is the year-round Opatija weather.

The Best Things About Opatija

The Lungomare

One of the things we loved about this area was the Lungomare. This 12 km or 7-mile-long seaside promenade passes through Opatija as it goes from the towns of Volosko to the north and Lovran to the south. Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I built the Lungomare. For this reason, it is also called the Franz Joseph I Promenade.

You can spend hours strolling the Lungomare. And we did. It is lined with trees and overlooks picturesque scenery. There are many stairways that lead down to landings close to the water. They are great places to sunbathe and take photos.

Four photos on the Lungomare in Opatija
Along the Lungomare

The Architecture

If you’re a fan of the elegant architecture of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as Steve and I are, Opatija has you covered. The town is full of beautiful buildings for you to admire. Many of them are painted in pastels.

Four photos of buildings in Opatija, Croatia
Four of the impressive buildings in Opatija

Villa Angiolina, the building that started it all is home to the Croatian Museum of Tourism. As of this writing, it is temporarily closed.

The Gardens and Parks

Besides ogling architecture, we love spending time in gardens. We enjoyed two in Opatija: the American Gardens and Angiolina Park.

Gardens in Opatija
Small sections of the American Gardens and Angiolina Park

Angiolina Park is a heavily-treed garden with over 100 species of plants next to Villa Angiolina. There is a large floral display in front of the villa. To the north of it, you can wander several paths past shrubs, trees, large rock formations, and a few statues.

The American Gardens are inland and, therefore, a bit uphill. These terraced formal gardens overlook Kvarner Gulf. In addition to a wide variety of flowering plants, including roses and camellias, there is a row of weeping mulberry trees at the bottom of the gardens. They were loaded with delicious berries when we visited. The top of the gardens features an eye-catching row of cypress trees behind stone columns.

You may wonder why it is called the American Gardens. In the 1920s, a Hungarian merchant made a fortune selling paprika in the Americas. He built the gardens to honor his wife, an Opatija native.

Even More to See and Do

The Open Air Theater is next to Park Angiolina. It wasn’t open when we visited, but if you visit in the summer, you can catch a show or movie there.

The Wall of Fame is also next to Park Angiolina. It features portraits of famous people from Opatija and people who have visited the town. You can see images of Franz Joseph I, Albert Einstein, Robert DeNiro, Isadore Duncan (the only woman), and Kirk Douglas, among others. There is an empty space, so you, too, can show that you have been to Opatija.

Two people on the Wall of Fame in Opatija
Albert Einstein and Emperor Franz Joseph I on the Wall of Fame

Park Margarita is another park where you can stroll among trees and shrubs. Steve and I passed by the entrance of this park but didn’t venture inside.

Practical Stuff

Getting there – If you have a car, you can drive to Opatija. However, parking may be a problem. We took a bus and, as always, used getbybus.com to plan and book our trip. 

Getting around – Opatija is small enough that you can walk everywhere. You will have to deal with hills as you move away from the seafront, though. The local buses are easy to use and can even take you to nearby towns. You can buy tickets at Tisak stands, but beware that they only sell round-trip tickets.

Restaurants – Since we were only there for two nights, we didn’t get to try many restaurants. However, the ones we ate at were very good.

Restoran Ruzmarin was number one on our hotel’s list of recommended restaurants, with good reason. We had a wonderful lunch there and tried truffles for the first time.

Restoran Roko and Pizzaria Roko are next door to each other and were also high on the list our hotel provided. We had pizza from them one night, which was pretty good.

We discovered Restoran Mali Raj as we walked south along the Lungomare. It was an excellent place to stop for a seafood lunch or dinner. The restaurant is connected to the Boutique Hotel Mali Raj in the small town of Icici and overlooks the gulf. It is about half an hour’s walk from the center of Opatija if you don’t stop to take photos every ten steps.

Here are other restaurants recommended by Hotel Mozart:

Veloce by Roko (fast food)
Bistro Yacht Club
Restoran Molo
Restoran Bevanda
Restoran Istranka
Antica Osteria da Ugo

Hotels – We stayed at Hotel Mozart. It is listed as a 5-star hotel, but despite its charms, it is more like a 3-star hotel. The air conditioning in this 129-year-old building wasn’t working when we arrived, and we were not informed of this. I was ready to leave right then, but Steve asked for a discount, and we decided to stay the night. It was an uncomfortable night.

The next morning, the manager offered us the second night free, so we stayed. Thanks to it being a cooler night and with the aid of a cheap fan, we slept great. Wouldn’t you know, the air conditioning came on as we were checking out!

Hotel Mozart had a lot going for it: excellent staff, a delicious breakfast, and cool décor. We had a deluxe room with a sea-view balcony. We chose it for the location and reasonable price. If you are thinking of staying there, you might want to check on the air conditioning before you book.

Three photos of Hotel Mozart
The Hotel Mozart exterior and two of the charming touches inside

Here are some other sea-view hotels to consider, although we don’t have first-hand knowledge of them:

Hotel Miramar is a four-star hotel located in the 147-year-old Villa Neptune. That’s it in the photo at the top of this post. It has a spa, indoor and outdoor pools, and a private garden.

The Grand Hotel Adriatic was the one I picked when it looked like we might move from Hotel Mozart. It is a modern four-star hotel. This one has an adults-only spa and wellness center (check out the photos, it looks incredible), an indoor pool, and an outdoor infinity pool. As we walked passed the outdoor pool one day, loud music was playing. If that’s not your thing when relaxing by the pool, this hotel may not be your best choice. It is gorgeous, though.

Like the Grand Hotel Adriatic, the Hotel Admiral–Liburnia is in a modern building. It is also a 4-star hotel with spa services, an indoor pool, and a seasonal outdoor pool overlooking the gulf. As we passed the outdoor pool, we noticed it was peaceful.

Cost

Staying in Opatija can be costly compared to other Balkan towns. The biggest expense will be your hotel, particularly if you want to be seaside. Our hotel was $157 per night and included breakfast. The cost of lodging increases significantly during the summer months.

A sit-down lunch or dinner for two with drinks was around $50. We also enjoyed take-out food while sitting on our balcony.

To give your budget a break, try the bakery chain Mlinar, which is a good place to grab a light bite.

For a do-it-yourself meal, there are two Konzum supermarkets on Ulica Marsala Tita, the street closest to the waterfront.

Until Next Time

Steve and I loved our short stay in Opatija. If you find yourself anywhere near the Kvarner Gulf, check it out. We think you’ll fall in love with it, too.

If you’ve been there, drop a comment below and let us know what you thought of it. And please consider sharing this post on social media. Just use the buttons at the top of the post.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Featured image: The Hotel Miramar in Opatija

Wind & Whim’s Monthly Update: June 2023

Hi there. I hope your summer is off to a great start. Ours sure is.

After laying low in May, we had a busy June. We spent most of it based in Pula, Croatia. While there, we took a six-night side trip to three other Croatian locations. After Pula, we spent a few days in Venice, then headed off the Bucharest for five weeks.

June was full of captivating sights and a few minor mistakes. Read this monthly update to learn about our adventures in Croatia and Venice and why Linda needs a refresher course in reading.

The Pula Amphitheater
The Pula Amphitheater

Highlights

Four Weeks in Pula, Croatia

This city was our fourth and last one on our way up Croatia’s Adriatic Coast. Its most famous sight is its Roman amphitheater. It is over 2,000 years old and reminiscent of the Colosseum in Rome, although the Pula Amphitheater (also called the Pula Arena) is considerably smaller. Today the amphitheater is used for concerts and film festivals.

We enjoyed exploring Pula, including:

Visiting the Pula Aquarium – the aquarium is in a 130-year-old fortress and has over 200 species of sea life. But perhaps most interesting is that the hallways are loaded with naval memorabilia. So this is two museums in one.

Interestingly, I couldn’t find anything online about the naval displays. Perhaps they are new or temporary.

Strolling the coastline – the Adriatic Coast of Croatia has incredible scenery. So it was no surprise that our stroll along the coast led from one picture-perfect moment to another.

Delighting at tortoises living at a monastery – we’ve seen a lot of monasteries but decided to give the St. Francis Monastery in Pula a try. I’m glad we did because it was our first time seeing tortoises at a monastery. There were hundreds, and we weren’t the only adults enthralled by them. Seriously, one man was petting a tortoise’s shell.

Hunting for Austro-Hungarian fortresses – there are several long-abandoned fortresses in Pula. These small fortresses formed a ring around the city in the 1800s. Steve and I went looking for two of them. The first was covered in vegetation and couldn’t be entered. But the second one was wide open, and we were able to explore it on our own.

Four photos of Pula, Croatia
Clockwise from top left: A cuttlefish at the aquarium, a beach on the Pula coast, Steve discovering Ft. San Giorgio is open, Headgemeister meeting a tortoise at the monastery

Learning about olive oil at the House of Istria Olive Oil Museum – I know, an olive oil museum wasn’t high on our bucket list either. But we enjoyed learning about the history and manufacture of olive oil. The entrance fee included an olive oil tasting, which was fun, even if I did choke the first time I drank some. Apparently, some people drink a small amount of olive oil daily. Who knew?

Perusing the markets – I am not a fan of markets, but Steve loves them. He visited a few, including a large weekend flea market, where he found two antique psychology books for our daughter Laura’s counseling office.

A Three-Stop Side Trip

In mid-May, Steve and I were in Zadar, Croatia. Since we were only a two-hour bus ride away from Plitvice Lakes National Park, we took a three-night trip there. It was our second visit to the park, the first one being a day tour in 2018. Unfortunately, this time it rained almost the entire time we were there. The heavy rains closed a large part of the park, and we only hiked for two hours.

We love this park so much that we were determined to try again. The only problem was that we were now in Pula, a more than six-hour bus ride away. And the only bus heading to Plitvice Lakes left Pula at the unholy hour of 5:15 a.m. So we decided to break up the trip by making a few stops along the way.

First Stop: Opatija

The first was two nights in Opatija. The town is on the Kvarner Bay, in the northern part of the Adriatic Sea. It was a popular summer resort in the 19th century and is chock full of the lovely Habsburg-era villas of that era.

Two photos of Opatija, Croatia
The Hotel Miramar and a small harbor on Kvarner Bay in Opatija

The best thing to do in Opatija is enjoy the scenery. It is easy to do thanks to the abundance of seaside hotels and the Lungomare. The Lungomare is a 12 km or 7-mile-long seaside promenade along the bay.

Steve and I spent hours walking the Lungomare. We never tired of the beautiful rock formations along the coast, and we have hundreds of photos to prove it. We also relaxed on our hotel room balcony, which overlooked the bay.

Second Stop: Rijeka

The next stop was the city of Rijeka, just a 20-minute drive from Opatija but a world apart. Our primary reason for visiting Rijeka was to view the Habsburg-era buildings. We saw many, and they were architecturally beautiful, but they were all quite dirty.

We walked around, ate a few good meals, and visited Trsat Castle. The best part of the trip was when we stopped for breakfast on our second morning. As we usually do, we had Hedgemeister join us. When our waiter came by, he was delighted to see a hedgehog. He explained that one of the most popular children’s books in Croatia is about a hedgehog who loves his home. It’s called Hedgehog’s Home or Jezeva Kucica in Croatian. Here is a cute video of the story.

Third Stop: Plitvice Lakes National Park

They say the third time is a charm, and it was. This time we kept an eye on the weather before we headed there, and it was much better than on our last visit, although we did have one downpour.

The park includes sixteen terraced lakes that create over ninety waterfalls. It is laid out well, and the trails are well-marked and well-tended. This time we got to see almost all of it.

Four photos of Plitvice Lakes National Park
Four scenes from Plitvice Lakes National Park

We drove from Rijeka to Plitvice Lakes because the bus trip was too long. This is only the second time we have driven overseas. The drive there was fine, but the drive back was stressful because it was raining the whole time, and a good part of it was spent driving on winding mountain roads through low-hanging clouds.

A Quick Trip to Venice

Venice was hot, crowded, expensive, and wonderful. We had a great tour of the Doge’s Palace, marveled at the beauty of St. Mark’s Basilica, and viewed the city from the top of the basilica’s bell tower.

We also checked out two nearby islands, Murano, known for its top-quality glass, and Burano, known for its brightly painted buildings.

And, of course, we got lost in the maze of streets, a rite of passage when visiting Venice. Google Maps did not work well on the city’s narrow streets.

Three photos of Venice
Scenes from Venice: a cat marionette, a gondola bringing people to a restaurant, a sea creature made of Murano glass

Our Venice trip was short because we were close to the 90-day Schengen Area limit. We had originally planned to spend three nights in Venice but adjusted our plans, as you can read about below.

After our first day, we both felt that this short visit would be enough. But after our second day, we agreed that we would like to spend a week here during a less busy time.

Our Second Time in Bucharest

From Venice, we headed to Bucharest. We were there in the summer of 2018 and liked it. In addition to incredible architecture and history, they have Therme. You can read our take on this amazing wellness spa/water park here.

Low Points

A Rookie Mistake

Midway through the month, we were finalizing our plans for our three-night visit to Venice. We realized that the airport we were flying out of when leaving Venice was an hour and a half away from where we were staying.

Since our flight was at 7:50 a.m., that was bad enough. But the trip would involve walking, taking a ferry, walking again, taking a train, walking yet again, and then riding a bus. All while dragging everything we travel with.

Apparently, when we booked the flight, we were so happy to find a direct one that we failed to check the logistics of getting to the airport. Even after five years of travel, we are still making rookie mistakes.

So instead of spending three nights in Venice, we only spent two. Then we spent the third night in Trieste, so we only had a ten-minute ride to the airport.

Hotel Mozart

In Opatija, we stayed at Hotel Mozart, a charming pink building built in 1894. As pleasant as the hotel was, we quickly encountered a few problems. First, we noticed that there wasn’t a refrigerator in our room, as there was supposed to be. Steve called reception, and we soon had a petite young woman knocking on our door while carrying a small refrigerator.

After shaking our heads that no one had noticed this was missing, we quickly unpacked, turned on the air conditioner to get the room cool for our return, and headed out to explore.

When we returned, the room wasn’t any cooler than when we left. Steve returned to reception only to be told the air conditioner wasn’t working. I was ready to go to another hotel right then, but Steve asked for a discount, and we decided to spend at least the first night.

We had a hot night, and by mid-morning the next day, we still hadn’t heard anything about a discount. I finally went to reception an hour before check out to see what they were willing to offer. I was shocked when the receptionist told me they would give us our second night free.

Those who know me know I love a bargain, so I was willing to put up with another hot night for that sweet deal. We bought an inexpensive fan and lucked out because the second night was cooler than the first, so we slept well. As we were checking out, the air conditioning came back on.

Despite the problems at Hotel Mozart, the staff was superb, the view was great, and the breakfast buffet was delicious. I would consider giving them another try if we visit Opatija again.

You Know What They Say About Assuming

I have a bad habit of not reading things carefully. I did it with train tickets from Paris to London, which cost us US$200 to change the tickets. I also did it at the Sofia, Bulgaria airport, where I led us to the wrong terminal. Since their two terminals aren’t within walking distance from each other, we had to take a taxi to the correct one. And I did this not once, but twice, two years apart!

This time, I failed to read the details about our tour of Doge’s Palace. I assumed we would meet our tour group in front of the palace. When we arrived, I asked a man at the entrance where the tour groups met. He said (in a very unpleasant and unhelpful way) that there weren’t any tours and asked to see our tickets. Before we knew it, he had checked us into the palace and informed us (again in his unpleasant way) that if we left, we would not be allowed back in.

Then I read the instructions, which directed us to the tour operator’s office. We headed there and explained the issue. From their reaction, this wasn’t the first time they had a problem with the palace staff.

Our guide solved the problem by going through a different entrance with a nicer staff member, but the man at the entrance certainly left a negative impression.

Detail from inside the Doge’s Palace
Detail in the Doge’s Palace

One of these days, I will learn to read more carefully.

On the Website This Month

In between our explorations, I’ve been busy updating this website. Soon it will have a more modern look with more functionality. Because this has taken a lot of time, I didn’t have any new posts in June. The last one, from late May, looks at the problems of overtourism and possible solutions

In late June, Time Out Travel published this article about France’s plan to find ways to reduce the number of tourists at its most popular spots.

Where to Next?

Steve and I will spend most of July in Bucharest, then head north a few hours to Sinaia and Brasov. These two Romanian towns are near several castles, including the medieval Bran Castle (also known as Dracula’s Castle) and Cantacuzino Castle (Nevermore Academy in the Wednesday TV series).

Then we will go to Skopje, North Macedonia, for a month, and Tirana, Albania, for another month. After all this, we can reenter the Schengen Area. Perhaps we’ll go back to Italy.

Until Next Time

Do you have any summer travel plans? If so, drop a comment below and tell us about them. Maybe we’ll find ourselves in the same place.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Overtourism in the Places We Love

Do you dream of riding a gondola on Venice’s Grand Canal, visiting the Game of Thrones filming locations in Dubrovnik, or getting a little wild in Amsterdam?

If so, you aren’t alone. These places ignite our wanderlust. They have something else in common; they, and many others, are overtouristed.

So how do we reconcile our desire to experience the places we dream of with being a responsible tourist? There are no easy answers, but some thought and knowledge can go a long way in helping to mitigate the problems overtourism causes.

What Is Overtourism?

Overtourism occurs when a tourist destination sees a decline in the quality of life for both residents and visitors and damage to the natural environment due to more people visiting than the area can reasonably handle.

This article by Solimar International (a sustainable tourism marketing and tourism consulting firm) does a great job of explaining what overtourism is and how we can prevent it.

Where Is Overtourism a Problem?

From bucket-list-worthy cities to tourist attractions, from entire countries to continents, here are some of the most overtouristed places in the world:

Cities including Amsterdam, Barcelona, Dubrovnik, Florence, Paris, Prague, and Venice

A street crowded with people
Barcelona’s Las Ramblas with its typical crowds (photo by Yoav Aziz on Unsplash.com)

Attractions and areas like Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, some U.S. National Parks, and Lake Tahoe

Even Mt. Everest has suffered because of its popularity. I was shocked when I found out that there are around 200 dead bodies on the mountain. A 2019 clean up removed twelve tons of garbage and discovered four more bodies.

Islands including Santorini and Maui, the country of Iceland, and the continent of Antarctica

Businesses, such as Lavraria Lello, a beautiful art nouveau bookstore in Porto, Portugal, can also be impacted by overtourism. This bookstore is rumored to have been J. K. Rowling’s inspiration for Hogwarts. The author denies it, but that doesn’t stop thousands of people from queuing at its door.

Lavraria Lello charges five euro to enter the store, which you can apply towards a purchase. Even with this fee, the store is packed with people trying to get the perfect photo. Good luck with that!

Inside Lavraria Lello in Porto, Portugal
Inside Lavraria Lello

Learn more about overtourism in the places we love in these articles:
Overtourism in Europe’s historic cities sparks backlash on The Guardian.com
9 destinations struggling with overtourism on Trafalgar.com
Fodor’s No List 2023 on fodors.com

For something more positive, check out Fodor’s Go List 2023

What Problems Does Overtourism Cause?

Overtourism causes problems for locals, visitors, and the environment. Here is a list of some of the issues caused by overtourism.

Issues that affect locals:
*increased cost of housing, often due to the proliferation of Airbnbs
*noise and congestion
*businesses like supermarkets and pharmacies being replaced with those that cater to tourists
*increase commuting time as locals move further out and roads become more congested
*resentment towards tourists because of the above

This article by Honolulu Civil Beat discusses the water shortage on Maui and the anger locals have because they have to conserve water while resorts are running fountains, filling swimming pools, and keeping golf courses green.

Issues that affect visitors:
*overcrowding
*increased prices
*loss of authenticity

Issues that affect locations:
*increased cost of maintenance and policing
*increased pollution
*degradation of attractions

A special problem with cruise ship passengers

When tourists rent hotel rooms, eat in restaurants, book tours, pay entrance fees, and buy souvenirs, they help the local economy. However, not every tourist visit contributes to the economy in a significant way.

The biggest cause of this is cruise day trippers. Cruise ships can unleash thousands of people in a city. These people will not book a hotel room. They are less likely to hire local tour operators since it is easier to book a tour through the cruise line. They may grab lunch and some snacks or buy a few souvenirs. Overall, their visits provide little benefit to the local economy.

What Is Being Done about Overtourism?

Cities and attractions need tourists, but not too many. Overtouristed places are struggling to find the right balance. Here are a few actions various locations have taken to preserve the local way of life and protect resources.

Maya Bay, Thailand

People and boats at Maya Bay
Not the tropical paradise you hoped for at Maya Bay (photo by Diego Delso CC-BY-SA 3.0)

After it gained worldwide attention from the 2000 movie The Beach, Maya Bay exploded in popularity, sometimes having 8,000 visitors in one day. The large number of people, along with an increase in the number of boats in the bay, took a toll on the coral reefs and wildlife.

The Thai government closed Maya Beach in 2018 to give the ecosystem time to recover. This took four years. Per this April 2023 article by The World Travel Guy, the beach is now open but will likely close for a couple of months each year to give it time to recover from the strains put on it by beachgoers.

Venice, Italy

Venice has banned large cruise ships from docking in the lagoon since 2021.

Because of erosion to the city’s foundation and pollution concerns, Venice faced the possibility of being put on UNESCO’s World Heritage danger list. You can read more about this in this article by Travel + Leisure.

You can learn more about places attempting to restrict cruise ships in this article from Euronews. This Business Insider article talks about several U.S. cities attempting to restrict cruise ship traffic and the opposition they face from the cruise industry, local businesses, and state and federal governments.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

In 2019, Dubrovnik capped the number of cruise ships to two per day and limited the number of passengers to 5,000 per day. A look at the docking schedules on cruisetimetables.com shows that they are keeping close to this. On some days, there are more than two ships, with a combination of large and small ships. On some days the total number of passengers exceeds 5,000 by a few hundred.

Steve and I were there in April 2023. During that week, cruise ships were in port on our arrival and departure days and the first full day of our visit. On that full day, four ships were in port, carrying a total of 4,726 passengers. We went into Old Town that day, and it was busy, but not horribly so.

Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona has tried several ideas to control the crowding in their city, including a temporary ban on the building of new accommodations in 2015. Currently, they have banned the rental of private rooms for less than 31 days. Entire apartments can be rented short-term (less than 31 days) as long as the owner has paid a few hundred euro to procure the appropriate license.

The city has recently limited tour group sizes, banned the use of megaphones on tours, and designated some streets one-way for pedestrians.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Amsterdam attracts millions of tourists partly because of its liberal lifestyle. Unfortunately, far too many of them come with the intention of taking their partying to the extreme. It is so bad it has made parts of Amsterdam virtually unlivable for its residents.

The city is finally fighting back. One way is with a digital discouragement campaign with the uninspired name “Stay Away.” It targets 18-35-year-old British men. The ads show the risks of hardy partying. They will pop up when someone searches terms like “stag party amsterdam.”

The Amsterdam city council instituted restrictions in the Red Light District, including banning cannabis and mandating earlier closing times for bars and brothels. There is also talk of relocating sex workers from the Red Light District to an “erotic center.” This idea is not going over well with many of the sex workers or with residents who don’t want the erotic center in their neighborhood.

Bhutan

The South Asian country of Bhutan has dealt with tourism differently. Since the country opened to tourists in 1974, international visitors were required to spend at least $250 per day. This covered accommodations, meals, a mandatory tour guide, and a sustainable development fee of $65.

Post-pandemic, the government ditched the package plan and instituted a daily fee of $200. Unlike the previous $250 per day minimum, the $200 fee doesn’t cover any travel costs.

Our Experiences with Overtourism

Barcelona, Spain

Back in the spring of 2018, when Steve and I were newbie world travelers, I was excited to visit Barcelona. It was the first city where we spent an extended amount of time. The concept of overtourism wasn’t on our radar, but it didn’t take long for us to see how crowded the city was. Barcelona’s overcrowding is made worse because it is a compact city with a high population density.

We stayed in Barcelona for a month. During that time, we saw many marvelous sights, but when I think back to our time in Barcelona, crowds are a big part of my memories.

In hindsight, we stayed in Barcelona too long, adding to its overtourism problem. I would love to go back, but if I do, it will be a much shorter visit.

Be sure to check out our post, “6 Things You Should Know Before Visiting Barcelona.”

Dubrovnik, Croatia

In 2018, Steve and I also visited Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, and took a side trip to Split. We skipped Dubrovnik because it was further away and because of its reputation for being overtouristed.

Fast forward to 2023. When planning where to go after our visit to Athens in early April, we chose Dubrovnik as our first stop. Even though we knew it was overtouristed, we felt it was a worthwhile place to see. We limited our stay to one week. Visiting in April also meant it wasn’t nearly as crowded as it is in the summer months.

Steve and I loved Dubrovnik. We found it interesting, clean, and easy to get around. There were a lot of people, but no more than we have seen in many other places.

Istanbul, Turkey

Steve and I spent four weeks in Istanbul in 2022. It was one of our least favorite cities, partly because of how crowded it was. Over 15 million people live there, and around 10 million people visit every year.

While walking through the city, Steve and I frequently said there were too many people. The irony that we were contributing to the overcrowding wasn’t lost on us.

A large group of people waiting for a bus
People waiting for a rush hour bus

You can read our take on Istanbul in “Visiting Istanbul: The Good, The Bad, And The Startling.”

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

I learned about Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia from a calendar. The spectacular scenery in the photo wowed me. In 2018, Steve and I were in Croatia and decided to take a one-day tour from Zagreb to the park.

The park lived up to my first impression. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Wooden boardwalks lead visitors over sixteen terraced lakes and past ninety waterfalls. However, the crowded boardwalks detracted from our enjoyment.

We visited in the summer when the park is busiest. Our guide told us the park capped the number of daily visitors at 14,000. I do believe they hit that point the day we were there.

The park is so enchanting that Steve and I revisited it in 2023. This time we stayed at a hotel in the park for three nights. Unfortunately, heavy rains closed many of the trails and limited our hiking time.

An empty boardwalk at Plitvice Lakes National Park
Heavy rains during our visit kept the crowds away

Venice, Italy

When I think of overtourism, Venice is one of the places that immediately springs to mind. Yet it is a place I long to visit. And in June 2023, I will get that chance.

Steve and I will spend most of June 2023 in Pula, Croatia. This city on the Adriatic Sea is kitty-corner from Venice, a three-and-a-half hour ferry ride away. So after our stay in Pula, we will spend three nights in Venice!

I’ve always known that if I went to Venice, it would be a short trip. First, because it is notoriously expensive, and second, because I don’t want to add to the overcrowding. I know that we will probably only scratch the surface, but just getting the chance to see such a place is a privilege.

What Can You Do About Overtourism?

If you are concerned about the negative impact your visit may have on the city, you might decide to skip it. But should you?

Not necessarily. Overtouristed places rely on tourist dollars to support jobs, fill tax coffers, and help with conservation efforts. During the pandemic, when tourism dried up, poaching in Africa soared since there weren’t any tourists or guides to hinder the poachers. Here are some tips to help you be a more thoughtful traveler:

General tips:
*Think about why you want to visit that place (not just to get the perfect Instagram shot, I hope).
*Consider other places where you can have a similar experience. You can find many suggestions online like these from Hidden Lemur.
*Avoid high-season; you will likely pay less and deal with fewer crowds. Win/win
*Stay for more than one day. Conversely, if you are a long-term traveler, consider taking a shorter trip.
*Consider exploring beyond the main sights. For example, after visiting Barcelona for a few days, explore other Catalonian towns such as Sitges or Montserrat.
*Support local businesses when possible. Here are some ideas from mediafeed.org to get you started.
*Avoid large tours.
*Use cruisetimetables.com to see the number of cruise passengers expected to visit on your days. Plan your trip or your daily sightseeing around them.
*Be respectful of the culture and customs. Common courtesy should be your constant travel companion.

If you choose to cruise:
*Pick smaller ships when possible.
*Consider routes that don’t stop at overtouristed places.
*Arrange tours through locals, not the cruise companies.

Final Thoughts

As travelers, we believe the world is our oyster. Our ideal trips include beautiful views, exciting attractions, interesting new friends, and great meals. What we have failed to realize until recently is that every place we visit is somebody’s home. Our tour buses clog their streets, our free spending drives up prices, and our lodgings price residents out of their neighborhoods.

Hopefully, those of us fortunate enough to travel will keep the issues of overtourism and the ways to mitigate it in mind as we plan our future trips.

Steve and I would love to hear how overtourism has impacted or changed the way you travel. Just drop your message in the comment section below. Also, if you found this post helpful, please consider sharing it using the share buttons at the top of the post.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Featured image of crowds in Florence, Italy by Taylor Smith on Unsplash.com

9 Reasons Why Traveling with Adult Children Rocks

Adult children. I believe that is an oxymoron. But what else can you call them? They are your children, your kids, your babies, all grown up and running their own lives. You may live with them, see them regularly, or not very often. Whatever your situation, I ask you: now that they’ve evolved into self-sufficient beings, should you travel with them?

Absolutely!

Below are nine reasons why traveling with adult children rocks.

A Little Background

Steve and I have two daughters, Stephanie (Steph), 31, and Laura, 27 (aka the girls). They both live in Florida. Steve and I live everywhere. Therefore, we don’t get to see our girls very often.

When we returned to Jacksonville, Florida, in December 2019, our Christmas gift to Steph and Laura was a trip to visit us somewhere in Europe in 2020. Unfortunately, the pandemic put those plans on hold. It finally happened in December 2021 when they visited us in Budapest.

We braved the cold to explore the Christmas markets, enjoy the colorful lights covering the buildings on Fashion Street, and luxuriate in the thermal water at the Szechenyi Thermal Baths. We ate well, especially at the Lang Bistro and Grill Sunday brunch buffet in the Hilton Budapest Hotel. But perhaps the most fun we had was at both locations of the Museum of Sweets & Selfies.   

Even though the weather was cold, damp, and windy (the worst weather Steve and I had seen in Budapest in two years), we had a wonderful time reconnecting. It doesn’t get much better than quoting your favorite lines as you watch Christmas Vacation with the ones you love.

To read more about our visit with our girls and their 12-hour delay in the Paris airport, check out “December 2021 Recap: Christmas in Budapest.”

Four photos of traveling with adult children
Clockwise from upper left: Steve and Steph at the Szechenyi Baths; Steph, Laura, and Linda stuck in the ball pit at the selfie museum; Laura, Steve, and Steph enjoying the lights on Fashion Street; Linda and Laura at Sunday brunch

So it was a no-brainer that their Christmas 2021 gift would be another trip. In April 2022, the four of us spent two weeks in Athens.

While the weather was cooler than normal, we had another great time. Between visits to the Acropolis, the incredibly cool Acropolis Museum, and the Ancient Agora, we made time for fish pedicures and a short trip to Aegina Island. We petted numerous cats, enjoyed Greek food, and ate too much gelato.

Four photos of people on vacation
Clockwise from upper left: Laura and Linda goofing off on Aegina Island; the four of us getting fish pedicures; Steph and Laura at the Ancient Agora; Steph, Steve, and Laura at the Panathenaic Stadium

With two successful international family trips under our belts, we are already talking about next year’s trip. Here are nine reasons why traveling with adult children rocks.

The Nine Reasons

1. They don’t need strollers, car seats, or diaper bags – I admire parents who travel with young children. As every parent knows, kids are a lot of work and need sooooo much stuff. And they aren’t any help with lugging it all around, the little freeloaders.

2. You don’t have to plan your days around nap time (unless you want to) – During the girls’ visit to Budapest, the bad weather, along with navigating the COVID-19 rules, tired us out. Naps came to the rescue. Even in Athens, where we had better weather, we all enjoyed an occasional nap. Why not?

3. They are self-sufficient – Adult children can handle all the daily tasks that young children need help with, like personal care and doing their laundry. It is nice to enjoy their company without the extra work. And best of all, you can leave them home alone, and you won’t end up in jail.

4. They can help out – Beyond being self-sufficient, adult children can help with everything from carrying groceries to cleaning, from cooking to doing the dishes. They can even help with planning. With all the travel planning Steve and I do, it is nice to have someone else take the wheel for a while, even if it’s just navigating the metro. And if you’re lucky, they may even cook a few meals for you as Steph did in Athens.

5. They can understand and appreciate what they’re seeing – You know little ones. They like what they like, and they aren’t shy about telling you. Unfortunately, what they like is often limited and seldom includes culturally enriching activities. The same can be said for many teens.

Just because your children are now adults doesn’t mean they have developed into lovers of all things culture. But one would expect they have developed interests beyond theme parks and playgrounds. 

It’s interesting to see where their interests lie. Laura was keen to go on a short hike with Steve and me. Steph, not so much, so she stayed home. Conversely, we all went to the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens. Steph and I enjoyed it, while Steve and Laura did not.

6. They can go out on their own – whether it’s souvenir shopping or bar hopping, your kids can handle it by themselves. Although I must confess, when they are at home in Florida, and Steve and I are God knows where, I don’t worry about them because I don’t know what they’re doing. However, when we are staying in the same place, and they go out at night, I don’t sleep well until they are safely back. If your kids are likely to go out after your bedtime, you’ve been warned.

7. They can go to bars with you – Even though two of us don’t drink alcohol, there are plenty of delicious mocktails to choose from. So off we went to spend a few hours in the Kolonaki neighborhood in Athens. We enjoyed some creative drinks and the girls picked up the tab!

Two photos of people enjoying cocktails
The four of us enjoying mocktails and cocktails

8. They can contribute to the cost – As the parents, you may be footing the bill. But as your kids age, they may be able to pay part or all of their way. Even if you are paying, they will likely have money for any extras they want and may even treat you to dinner (or some cocktails).

9. You get to spend time with the awesome adults you raised – Even if you live near your kids, traveling with them can give you a different perspective. Because Steve and I don’t see our girls often, these trips allow us to enjoy their company and see how they have grown personally and professionally during our time apart. We had several enlightening conversations in which Laura, a licensed mental health counselor, shared her psychological knowledge. Steph showed us how proficient she has become in the kitchen with a few tasty meals.

Final Thoughts

The fact that Steph and Laura are single and don’t have children makes it easier to travel together than if significant others and little ones were added into the mix. On top of that, we all get along, which sadly isn’t true for every family. For now, Steve and I are thankful that we get to share these experiences with our girls.

If you are considering traveling with your adult children, here are “7 Tips for Traveling With Adult Children” by Paul Henry on TravelPulse.

Steve and I love to hear from our readers. Please tell us about your experiences traveling with your adult children in the comments section below. Would you do it again?

Happy traveling,
Linda

The featured image above includes a few of the hundreds of photos we took at the two Museum of Sweets & Selfies locations in Budapest.

Back to the U.S. (For One Month)

More than three years. Almost 38 months. 1,146 days. That’s how long it was between our last visit to the U.S. and our recent one in March of 2023.

As the months and years rolled by, Steve and I were less and less interested in returning home. Aside from our daughters being there, we had little motivation to return.

Then we were invited to the wedding of a young lady we’ve known since she was born. And the wedding was in Key West, a place we had never visited. So we decided to go back to the U.S. (Jacksonville, Florida, specifically) for one month.

Here is what we did, what surprised us, what shocked us, and why we still plan to settle outside the U.S.

What We Did

We had several objectives for this trip: Stock up on clothes and supplies, see our doctors, and, most importantly, spend time with family and friends.

We did a lot of all three. So much so that we were often exhausted, and I ignored this blog and social media.

I won’t bore you with the shopping and medical details. The highlights were as follows:

A wedding on a catamaran in Key West – It was a pleasure to reconnect with family friends we have known for more than thirty years. The occasion was the wedding of one of the daughters in the family.

You could not ask for a more perfect setting for a wedding than a catamaran at sunset off Key West. We celebrated the newlyweds, Nicole and Erin, as they exchanged vows at sunset. Unfortunately, no green flash, but beautiful all the same.

Two women celebrating their marriage
The happy couple

Exploring the Keys – we stayed in Marathon but spent some time in Key West. We toured The Hemingway Home and Museum, got the requisite photo at Mile Marker 0, and enjoyed the floral beauty of the Key West Garden Club.

Four people in a garden
Laura, Steve, Linda, and Stephanie at the Key West Garden Club

Seeing our older daughter’s new apartment – Stephanie and her friend Jeff moved into a brand new apartment in Jacksonville several months ago. Not only is their apartment lovely, but the complex is also chock full of great spaces. Between the pool, outdoor kitchen, zen garden, and game area, it is like a resort.

As a parent, there are few things that please you as much as seeing your grown children happy and successful.

Spending a weekend in Orlando with our younger daughter – We finally had a chance to see Laura’s apartment. It is small but oh so cute.

We also got to see the office where she works as a therapist. We met her boss, Dora, and the practice’s therapy dog, Hess.

Two photos: a therapy dog and a woman holding a toy frog
At Laura’s office: therapy dog Hess, me on Laura’s pink therapy couch with a toy frog for World Frog Day

Our weekend was filled with good food, an upscale art festival (where I mentally spent $10,000 in the first ten minutes), and a visit to the Orlando Museum of Art. The Museum of Art had an excellent exhibit on the Ukraine invasion.

To top off the weekend, we had a wonderful time at dinner with Laura’s friends, Tanya and Van.

Visiting my cousin and her husband in their beautiful home – My cousin, who is more like a sister since we grew up doing everything together, retired to Palm Coast with her husband.

We finally got to see their golf course home, which is beautifully decorated. I will have to hire her should Steve and I ever settle down.

Reconnecting with old friends – I enjoyed a margarita-filled dinner with my friend Cari. We have been friends for more than thirty years. We are not the kind of friends who communicate often, but no matter how long it’s been since we’ve seen each other, it’s like no time has passed.

Steve and I also had lunch with our former neighbors, Roger and Sherry. Again, it was like the last several years had not passed.

Unfortunately, we weren’t astute enough to get photos during either of these meals.

What Surprised Us (In a Good Way)

Steve and I keep up with the news, especially about the U.S. For the past several years, we’ve seen countless reports about political strife and frequent mass shootings. Because of all this negative news, we were braced for a hostile and aggressive environment.

While we didn’t fear being shot because, let’s face it, the chances of that are small, we expected hostility on the roads and anger in the general population.

We were happy to find the opposite. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with the same friendliness we’d been enjoying during our travels.

What Shocked Us

I must have looked quite the fool when Steve and I were in Publix, a popular Florida supermarket chain. Several times I called Steve over to look at the price of something. The worst was just over two ounces of Boar’s Head cooked bacon for almost $8.

We knew that the U.S. was experiencing high inflation, but until we were face to face with the prices, we really didn’t grasp it. Luckily, we only had to live with those prices for a month.

Frustration on Florida’s Highways

Okay, venting time.

Florida, especially Orlando, is a hot tourist destination. As such, you would think the state would make travel easy for visitors. Even having lived in Florida for thirty years, Steve and I found the highways and toll system in Florida absurd.

Florida’s toll system sucks

Sorry to be so blunt, but it does.

Our flight from Casablanca landed in Orlando around midnight. After getting our luggage and breezing through customs, it took two hours to get our rental car. When asked if we wanted a transponder for tolls, we said no, we would pay the tolls ourselves.

We had decided to spend our first night in a hotel in Orlando and drive to Jacksonville the next day. As we drove to our hotel, we came across an unmanned toll booth. Our choices were to proceed with an Easy Pass (which we didn’t have) or pay a fifty-cent toll by tossing coins in a basket (which we also didn’t have).

We then got a SunPass (this site will only work if you are connected to a U.S. location). The pass allows you to put funds on your account to cover tolls. We stuck it on our rental car’s windshield, and we were good to go.

Then it was time to return our rental car. We left our hotel for a short drive to the airport and encountered another unmanned toll booth. Again we had the choice of the EasyPass lane or paying the toll with coins.

We were unsure if EasyPass and SunPass were interchangeable (they are), so I had the pleasure of tossing six quarters into a basket and one on the ground. See, Florida highways can be fun.

We removed the EasyPass from our rental car when we returned it, only to find out a few days later that this was not enough. Because our pass was linked to the rental car’s license plate, we had the pleasure of paying for someone else’s tolls for four days until I discovered I needed to remove the license plate number from my SunPass account.

Enough with “This Lane Ends”

Google Maps made it easy to find our way around. However, it drove me crazy how often lanes ended or were marked exit only. It seemed like we were constantly changing lanes, first to the left, then to the right (or maybe just to the left again for fun), then back again. Given how busy the roads are, this constant lane changing adds to the stress of driving in an unfamiliar place.

Why We Still Don’t Want to Settle in the U.S.

Despite our pre-trip apprehension, Steve and I enjoyed our time in Florida. Even so, this trip reinforced our view that when we finally settle down, we prefer it not to be in the U.S.

In addition to the high cost of living, we experienced once again how car-dependent the U.S. is. Even visiting the sprawling St. John’s Town Center open-air mall involves driving from one section to another.

Steve and I have been enjoying a lower cost of living in general while out of the U.S. We also love living in walkable cities with great public transportation.

Until Next Time

I hope you enjoyed this look into our trip “home”. Now it’s time for me to get back to my blog so I can share more travel-related posts with you.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Featured image by Derick McKinney on Unsplash.com (enhanced by author)

What You Need to Know About Drinking in Morocco

Are you thinking of visiting Morocco and wondering if you will have to forego a refreshing beer or relaxing glass of wine? You might be surprised to learn that alcohol is available in Morocco, although not as readily as in non-Muslim countries.

Steve and I spent two and a half months in Morocco in the winter of 2022-2023. During that time, I was able to find beer and wine. It wasn’t always easy, and it wasn’t always cheap.

Here’s the lowdown on drinking in Morocco.

All money is in U.S. dollars.

Is Drinking Legal in Morocco?

Yes. Drinking is legal in Morocco. Since Morocco is an Islamic country and the Quran forbids consuming alcohol, it plays a much smaller role in daily life than in non-Muslim countries. Even so, it is not illegal and can be found in bars, liquor stores, and some restaurants.

How Easy is it to Find Alcohol in Morocco?

Not so easy.

Most restaurants do not serve alcohol. They usually offer a wide variety of soft drinks, including delicious fruit juices and mocktails. Non-alcoholic beer is often available too.

If you want to check online before you visit a restaurant to see if they serve alcohol, you can try finding their menu online. Don’t be surprised if the restaurant you are interested in does not have a website. Many don’t. Sometimes the website is a FaceBook page.

You can also call and ask if they serve alcohol. Many people in food service speak English, but French and Arabic are the primary languages.

My best advice is to assume the restaurant doesn’t serve alcohol, particularly if it’s a traditional Moroccan restaurant. If it does, consider it a bonus.

We spent time in six Moroccan cities, and in each one, there were liquor stores. You can get beer, wine, and hard liquor in these stores, but in our experience, you cannot get non-alcoholic beer or wine. That is available in some supermarkets, including Carrefour.

Supermarket chains like Carrefour may sell alcohol in some locations but not in others. When they do, it is sold in a separate store connected to the supermarket.

Google is your friend when hunting down your favorite libations in Morocco. I’ve had good luck Googling “where can I buy alcohol in name of city.”

Except for drinks at the Barcelo Tanger bar, where we were the only customers, we had no first-hand experience with Moroccan bars. We didn’t notice any bars as we explored, but some hotels have them. Again, you can check their websites or call to see if they have a bar.

If you’re looking to party, here are a few articles to help you find a bar:
“The 10 Liveliest Bars in Marrakesh” by Culture Trip
“The Best Bars in Casablanca, Morocco” by Culture Trip

We have never seen alcohol for sale or served in a medina. Your best bet is to look outside the medina.

How Much Does Alcohol Cost in Morocco?

As expected, you will pay a premium for alcohol you purchase in a restaurant. I found the cost in restaurants that offer alcohol equivalent to the high end of what we have seen in our travels.

When buying beer at a supermarket, I paid $2.00 for 50 ml of Flag Special. Some liquor stores were in line with this, while others were a bit higher.

As expected, wine prices vary depending on quality. I found the wine prices in liquor stores to be reasonable.

Our Experiences by City

Here are my experiences buying alcohol in five Moroccan cities.

Tangier

On our first night in Tangier, we went to the Barcelo Tanger hotel for drinks. I had one glass of wine and Steve had two 33ml non-alcoholic beers. We were shocked that the total was $23.

We ate dinner at the Barcelo Tanger hotel one night. My 50ml beer, with alcohol, was $10.

My go-to liquor store was a little hole in the wall on the waterfront. I do not have its address, but it is on Ave. Mohammed VI near the Marina Bay Hotel. They only accept cash.

Steve and I enjoyed a few meals at Anji Chinese Restaurant. It is at 156 Av. Youssef Ibn Tachfine. Their menu included alcohol, and it was more reasonably priced than at the Barcelo Tanger hotel.

Chefchaouen

During our few days in Chefchaouen, we discovered a great bar and restaurant, Bar Oum Rabie. It is just outside the medina at Bd Hassan 2.

Not only can you get drinks at relatively reasonable prices, but you will get free food, including a plate of fries, when you do. You can also order meals here.

I didn’t bother going to a liquor store since the ones I found online were too far away.

Rabat

It was easier to find alcohol in Rabat. We stayed in Quartier Hassan and had three places to buy alcohol within a 10-minute walk.

My go-to place for beer in Rabat was at the Carrefour Market Hassan Rabat on Ave. Moulay Ismail. The street-level grocery store did not sell alcohol but had plenty of zero-alcohol beers and wines.

The alcohol was sold in the basement, which was named Cave. The size of Cave and its stock could rival many Western liquor stores.

There was a large liquor store called La Bonne Maison on Rue Henri Popp not far from Carrefour. Their selection was impressive, but they were slightly more expensive than Cave.

There was also a small store near these two on Rue Mahamed El Jazouli, but I didn’t shop there.

Marrakesh

Steve and I enjoyed four nights in Marrakesh. Since we stayed in the medina and most of our sightseeing was there, I decided to stick to soft drinks. But serendipity intervened.

One day, we went to Jardin Majorelle, which is outside of the medina. While walking there, we noticed a large liquor store called Mini Marche Majorelle. It is at 7 Ave. Yacoub El Mansour. I bought a bottle of wine since I didn’t have a way to keep beer cold in our riad.

Check out our experiences in Marrakesh in “Marrakesh: Colorful, Crowded, and Just a Little Crazy.”

Casablanca

Finding alcohol in Casablanca was pretty easy. I mainly shopped at the Carrefour Market Yacoub El Mansour. Keep in mind that not all Carrefour markets sell alcohol.

I also discovered a chain of liquor stores called Nicolas. In addition to several stores in Casablanca, they have stores in several other Moroccan cities, including Rabat and Marrakesh.

Moroccan Wine and Beer

It may surprise you that beer and wine are produced in Morocco.

There are three brands of Moroccan beer: Casablanca (a lager), Flag (a pilsner), and Stork (a light lager).

Three cans of Flag Speciale beer
One of the three brands of beer produced in Morocco

You won’t find craft beer, but you will find many international brands, including Heineken and Budweiser. Heineken is even bottled in Marrakesh.

Forty million bottles of wine are produced annually in Morocco. This is more than one bottle for every resident of the country. About 75% is red wine.

A bottle of Touareg wine
One of the wines produced in Morocco

Learn about Moroccan wine in this article from Wine Enthusiast.

Things You Should Be Aware Of

I’m sure your Moroccan bucket list doesn’t include spending time in a Moroccan jail. Here are tips to keep in mind if you plan on drinking in Morocco.

The drinking age in Morocco is 18.

According to this U.K. government website, it is illegal to drink alcohol on the street or anywhere accept a licensed bar or restaurant. Of course, you can take it back to your accommodation.

Even on New Year’s Eve, we didn’t see any drunks on the street. To keep out of legal trouble and to avoid insulting the people of your host country, do not walk the streets while tipsy.

As it should be, there is zero tolerance for driving under the influence.

As you can see, those of us who choose to drink do not have to give it up in Morocco. We just have to work a little harder to find it and be aware of the cultural norms.

Until Next Time

I hope you find this information helpful. Feel free to add suggestions on how you handled drinking in Morocco.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Feature photo by Andreas M. on Unsplash.com

Marrakesh: Colorful, Crowded, and Just a Little Crazy

When Steve and I were planning our three-month Morocco trip, we decided against a long stay in Marrakesh. Much of what we read spoke of how overwhelming it can be. But we didn’t want to miss it, so we decided to spend four nights in this legendary city.

The articles we read were right; Marrakesh is intense.

Here are our experiences while visiting Marrakesh in January 2023, along with some helpful hints.

All money is in U.S. dollars.

Terms

Medina – the old part of a city. It is usually walled. Marrakesh’s medina is over 1,000 years old, and the streets are narrow. For that reason, cars cannot easily drive on them, although we did see a few cars carefully navigating the crowds. Here is more information about the Marrakesh medina.

Riad (or ryad) – a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an indoor garden and courtyard. Riads used to be homes for the well-to-do and are now used as guest houses. You can learn more about riads here.

Souk – an Arab market, marketplace, or bazaar. Souks can be inside or outside of the medina. Learn more about souks here.

Getting There

We visited Marrakesh while staying in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. Trains run from the two Rabat train stations, Rabat Ville and Rabat Agdal, many times each day on a direct route that takes less than four hours.

A second-class ticket costs less than $20 per person as of this writing. This will get you a standard front-facing seat. We opted to go first-class since the ticket was just a few dollars more.

It is easy to order tickets online at the Moroccan Railway website. This is preferable to buying them at the station on the day of travel as the lines are often long. I caution you against using Rail Ninja. As we found out when we used them in Hungary, they add a significant upcharge.

The only downside of the trip, thanks to my sister, was that I couldn’t get the song “Marrakesh Express” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash out of my head. You can hear the song and read about how it came about here. Now you, too, can have it stuck in your head (the video may not be available in all locations).

Arriving in Marrakesh

The first thing I noticed as we approached Marrakesh was the color of the buildings. After an overdose of white buildings in Tangier and Rabat and the omnipresent blue in Chefchaouen, I found the warm terracotta of the Marrakesh buildings a welcome change.

Early morning in Jemaa el Fna
Early morning glow on the terracotta-colored buildings in Jemaa el Fna

The Marrakesh train station (Gare de Marrakech) is in the new part of the city, in a neighborhood called Gueliz. It is only about a ten-minute drive to the outskirts of the medina.

Two photos of the Marrakesh train station
The Marrakesh train station is beautiful inside and out.

Because of the medina’s narrow roads, our taxi dropped us off near the entrance of the medina, and we had about a ten-minute walk to our riad.

Finding Our Riad

To get an authentic Marrakesh experience, we decided to stay in a riad. We booked a four-night stay at Riad Caesar, which like most riads, is in the medina.

Fortunately, Google maps worked its magic and led us the right way. But at first, we weren’t sure it was the right way. After weaving through crowds along narrow streets lined with shops, we found ourselves on a quiet, run-down street.

An alley in the Marrakesh medina
The way to our riad; at least the sun was shining

There weren’t any signs, and only a few doors had numbers, so we struggled to find our riad. To make matters worse, sewer work was being done, so the street smelled like, you guessed it, sewage.

Surely this couldn’t be where our riad was. But it was.

Into Another World

Once we entered the riad and the door closed on the unpleasantness, we found ourselves in a magical place. Because riads are built without exterior windows, there wasn’t any street noise, just a charming courtyard with the requisite water feature.

Courtyard at Riad Caesar in Marrakesh
The courtyard in our riad.

This was our second riad stay; the first was in Chefchaouen. In both cases, the rooms were comfortable and had adequate heat.

Because riads are small, you get personal attention. The smaller number of rooms also means that they can be individually decorated.

However, there were a few drawbacks. Neither riad had tea and coffee fixings in the rooms and breakfast wasn’t served until 8:30. And in both riads, the breakfast area was unheated. Being January, it was cold.

Like hotels, riads are available at all price levels. We found the prices similar to hotels.

Find out more about what staying in a riad is like here.

Souking It All In

Our first activity was to stroll the medina, particularly the souks. Steve loves wandering through markets, me, not so much. But how could I resist the chance to experience the Marrakesh souks? Although it may seem like one big souk, there are actually several in the medina as explained in this Marrakesh Souk Guide by Continent Hop.

This wasn’t our first time in a Moroccan souk, but it was the most intense. There is no such thing as window shopping in a souk. The moment you dare to look at a product, the vendor pops up at your side. He will not only try to sell you what you were looking at but start pulling things from his booth.

All I could think of as we wandered the souks was that the sellers should learn to read their customers. If I could check out the merchandise uninterrupted, I would be more likely to buy something. The way the sellers act causes me to walk through the souks avoiding all eye contact lest I be targeted.

Moroccan babouche
Beautiful babouche (Moroccan slippers); one of the few people-free photos I was able to get in the souk
A man with dusters hanging off his waist
Don’t you love this guy’s ingenuity?

Three Gardens

Steve and I saw three gardens in Marrakesh: Jardin Majorelle, Anima Garden, and Le Jardin Secret. I loved Jardin Majorelle, liked Anima Garden, and wasn’t impressed with Le Jardin Secret.

Steve was disappointed because of the lack of flowers, but that was to be expected in late January. In addition, these gardens are full of plants that aren’t known for showy flowers, such as palms and cacti.

Jardin Majorelle

Hands down, Jardin Majorelle was my favorite place in Marrakesh.

Four photos of Jardin Majorelle in Marrakesh
Beautiful plants and vibrant colors in Jardin Majorelle

Judging by the crowds waiting to enter the garden, Jardin Majorelle appears to be one of the most popular attractions in Marrakech. I chose not to purchase online tickets because I expected it to be like most other gardens we’ve been to: not very crowded. Boy, was I wrong.

We were surprised to find a long line when we arrived. At first, our line moved at an acceptable pace, then it stopped. After a while, I went to the front to see why the line wasn’t moving.

A guard told me that they have to control the number of people who can enter at a given time, so we all had to wait until enough people exited the garden to go in.

We purchased online tickets for a few hours later, got lunch, and walked in at our scheduled time. If you go to Jardin Majorelle, you won’t have this problem. As of January 30, 2023, all tickets for the garden must be purchased online.

French artist Jacques Majorelle designed Jardin Majorelle when he and his wife lived on the property from the 1920s to the 1950s. The cubist villa was built in the 1930s.

When he and his wife divorced in the 1950s, he was forced to sell the property. It fell into disrepair over the next three decades. In the 1980s, Yves Saint-Laurent and his partner, Pierre Berge, purchased the property and restored it.

I loved walking along the paths where the green of the plants is punctuated with yellow, light blue, and dark blue accents, with a bit of red thrown in. The dark blue is known as Majorelle Blue, a color trademarked by Jacques Majorelle.

Check out “Magical Majorelle in Marrakesh, Morocco” by Exploration Vacation to learn more about this garden.

Anima Garden

Anima Garden was different from Jardin Majorelle but no less interesting. Austrian multimedia artist Andre Heller designed this garden. It opened in 2016.

The garden is a 40-minute drive from the Koutoubia Mosque (which is not far from the medina). Shuttle service is included in the ticket price.

Anima Garden was far less crowded than Jardin Majorelle. Many times Steve and I were alone. But what makes the garden unique are Heller’s statues placed throughout the space.

Two photos of artwork in Anima Garden
Just two of Heller’s creations in Anima Garden

Find out more in this article by MarocMama.

Le Jardin Secret

Unlike the first two gardens, Le Jardin Secret is in the medina. And it is not a secret. There was a huge sign in front of it, and it was busy.

Le Jardin Secret is on the grounds of a 400-year-old riad. The garden is divided into two parts, an exotic garden and a traditional Islamic garden.

There is an ornate gazebo, a tower, a restaurant, and an exhibition center. Perhaps the most interesting of all is that you can stay in Riad Jardin Secret. And for any artists reading this, they offer an artist residency.

The gazebo in Le Jardin Secret
The gazebo

Two Palaces

In Marrakesh, we toured two palaces: the Bahia Palace and El Badi Palace.

Bahia Palace

Surprisingly, the Bahia Palace is less than 200 years old. It was built for Si Moussa, a former slave who rose through the ranks of the royal government. The palace is set on two acres in the medina and has 150 rooms.

A courtyard in the Bahia Palace in Marrakesh
A spacious and colorful courtyard in the Bahia Palace

The Arabic word “bahia” translates to brilliance or beauty. And this palace certainly lives up to its name. Here you can enjoy exquisite mosaics, paintings, and stuccos. The downside is that there isn’t any furniture in the rooms. Reconstructing the rooms as they were during the palace’s heyday would make the palace more interesting.

We visited the palace midday, and it was mobbed. If you want to go when it’s less crowded and are more ambitious than us, consider getting there when it opens at 8:00 am.

El Badi Palace

Unlike the Bahia Palace, El Badi Palace is a ruin. It was built for Sultan Ahmad Al-Mansur in the late 1500s. The name means “incomparable.” Judging by the video shown at the palace, it was indeed incomparable.

Unfortunately, in the years after Sultan Al-Mansur’s death in 1603, the palace was stripped of its valuable materials. Only the ruins you see today were left standing.

Four photos of El Badi Palace
Inside the palace; the fourth photo is of a bookseller in the main square circa 1930

One Incredible Restaurant

Steve and I didn’t arrive at our riad until late afternoon, and we were famished. Our host recommended a restaurant in the main square, Jemaa el Fna. It served traditional Moroccan dishes, with many tangine and couscous options. Neither of us like these dishes very much, but we had to eat.

We hadn’t had many great meals during our first six weeks in Morocco. We chalked this one up to one more disappointing meal and accepted that we would have to endure so-so meals during our time in Marrakesh.

Then we found Mythe. We were walking through the medina on our way back to our riad when we noticed an attractive entrance to a restaurant along with a comprehensive menu. This alone was unique. The medina isn’t known for sophistication.

We tried Mythe the next day, and we loved it. The food was fresh, beautifully presented, and reasonably priced.

Salad and musicians at Mythe Restaurant, Marrakesh
Beautifully presented food and entertainment at Mythe

We ate our remaining meals there. Why risk another disappointment when we knew where to get food we enjoyed?

Other Places We Visited

Ben Youssef Madrasa

The Ben Youssef Madrasa is considered to be one of the most important historical buildings in Marrakesh. This college for Islamic instruction was built in the mid-sixteenth century and operated until 1960. The madrasa could accommodate up to 800 students at a time.

Tourists often come here to admire the architecture. In addition to the mosaics one would expect, the madrasa is beautifully decorated with intricately carved stucco and wood.

Four views inside the Ben Youssef Madrasa
Four views inside the madrasa

We didn’t see any written information in the madrasa. Like the Bahia Palace, I think it could benefit from including period furnishings.

House of Photography

On our last day in Marrakesh, Steve wanted to stroll the souks (again). I decided to check out the House of Photography instead.

Inside the House of Photography in Marrakesh
Inside the House of Photography

The House of Photography is a small museum whose goal is to show the diversity of Morocco through photography, postcards, newspapers, and documentaries. I think they hit the mark.

Everything was explained well, and English was prevalent. I particularly enjoyed the film “Landscapes and Faces in the High Atlas” by Daniel Chicault. In this 1957 film, Chicault traveled through various mountain villages to learn how the people of the High Atlas Mountains lived.

How Crowded Is Marrakesh?

It’s pretty crowded, as you can see in this photo:

A crowd of people in a medina
The medina on a Friday afternoon

Our first taste of Marrakesh’s intensity was when our taxi dropped us off near the main square, Jemaa el Fna. We walked past a line of horse-drawn carriages and into the square. The word chaotic does not do it justice. Vendors were everywhere, all yelling to get the attention of the passersby. A few of the famed snake charmers played flutes. People walked in every direction, and motorcycles and motorbikes zoomed through the crowd as quickly as possible without killing anyone.

Cost

Dates: January 21, 2023 to January 25, 2023
Number of days: 4
Total cost for two people: $750
Cost per day for two people: $188

Cost breakdown:
Lodging with breakfast: $340
Admission fees: $120
Food: $180
Transportation: $110

Admission fees included three gardens, two palaces, and two museums.

Final Thoughts and Tips

Locals may expect money for (often unsolicited) help – There are many Moroccans who will gladly help with minor issues, but some of them expect money for the simplest courtesies. Since you cannot tell who is being helpful and who is looking to profit, it is best not to accept unsolicited help unless you are willing to pay for it.

When Steve and I were looking for our riad, a young man asked what we were looking for. We told him the name of our riad. He walked down the alley a bit, returned, and told us it was a few doors down. Then he asked for money by walking alongside us while rubbing his fingers together.

We were hungry and tired, so we were in no mood to stop and start digging around for cash. Better luck next time, fella.

Some locals are persistent. We have learned that we have to be firm to the point of rudeness since a simple “no thank you” doesn’t work.

Be prepared to haggle in the souks – Never accept a vendor’s first offer. It will generally be higher than the item is worth, as the vendors expect you to haggle. Be prepared to walk away if you can’t reach an agreement, but don’t be surprised if the vendor runs after you.

Here are some haggling tips from Travel Talk.

There are a lot of beggars – This was true everywhere we went in Morocco. Sometimes they ask for money, but often they simply hold out their hand. These beggars can be of any age. We’ve seen many kids who reflexively hold out their hands for money as they pass us on the street.

We choose not to give to street beggars. We would rather give money to a respected charity.

Coughing and sneezing without covering the mouth is prevalent – Covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough is very uncommon in Morocco. It appears to be a cultural norm, although I couldn’t find any information about it. After going through the pandemic, we can’t understand why this practice continues.

Is it Marrakesh or Marrakech? – English speakers generally use the Marrakesh spelling, while Marrakech is the French way. The official languages in Morocco are Arabic and Berber, but French is also widely spoken. Most signs are in both Arabic and French.

There is another side to Marrakesh – Except for Jardin Majorelle and Anima Garden, everything we did was in the medina. There is a whole other side of Marrakesh we didn’t even touch on, the area called Gueliz (also spelled Guiliez).

You can read about the modern side of Marrakesh in “The New Town of Guiliez” by Marrakech Riad and in “Beyond the Medina: The Modern Side of Marrakech” by MarocMama.

Until Next Time

Marrakesh was one of the most unique places Steve and I have been. While it can be a little crazy, I think it is a must-see if you visit Morocco.

Have you been to Marrakesh? What did you think about it? Drop us a note in the comments section below. Steve and I love hearing from our readers.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Featured image by Zakariae Daoui on Unsplash.com

Wind and Whim’s 2022 Full-Time Travel Costs

It’s that time of year again! I get to put my accountant hat on and share our full-time travel costs with you.

I started sharing our travel costs in 2019 when I wrote about what it cost for our first eight months of full-time travel in 2018. I did this because I wanted to show how affordable full-time travel can be.

We have now completed 2022, and this is the fifth annual cost post I have written. You can see the previous years’ posts here:

2018
2019
2020
2021

A Quick Recap

We visited:
30 cities
8 countries
3 continents

We slept in 36 beds

We took:
8 flights
12 train trips
8 bus trips

We spent $64,500
which is $177 per day

Our 2022 Costs by Category

CategoryCostBudgetOver (Under) Budget
Lodging$31,800
$18,300$13,500
Food$15,700
$14,400$1,300
Transportation
$8,800
$9,600($800)
Activities$2,600$5,100($2,500)
Currency Exchange$7000$700
Insurance$3,000
$4,500
($1,500)
Medical0
$200($200)
Office Related$400
$300$100
Telephone$400
$500
($100)
Website$400$500($100)
Supplies$400$200$200
Visas$1000$100
Other$200$100$100
Totals$64,500$53,700$10,800
Cost per day$177$147$30

As you can see from this table, we were considerably over budget. We also spent more in 2022 than any year so far. There were two reasons for this.

The first reason was that we had a lease in Budapest for the first half of the year. This was required to get a residence permit to stay in Hungary while we waited for the pandemic to end. Once travel returned to normal, we were able to visit several cities, but each trip meant double accommodation expenses.

The second reason was that we booked two transatlantic flights and five accommodations for 2023 in 2022. This totaled $10,100, almost the total we were over budget. While there is always a little overlap at year end, this year we booked flights and accommodations through mid-April of 2023 as we are planning to spend March in the U.S. and then return to Athens, Greece, with our daughters in April.

Both of these situations are unusual for us. I expect our 2023 costs to be lower since we no longer have a lease and have paid for several large items in advance.

A Few Notes About This Data

* all costs are in U.S. dollars unless otherwise stated
* all costs are for two people
* only expenses directly related to travel are included

The following items are not included:
* stateside medical insurance
* routine prescriptions
* our base telephone service through Hushed
* storage of our possessions in the U.S.
* clothing (unless purchased for a specific reason like ski wear)

Budget Variances

Where We Were Over Budget

There were three categories in which we were significantly over budget: lodging, food, and currency exchange.

Lodging costs of $31,800 were an astounding $13,500 over budget. Here is the breakdown:

Lodging TypeCostNumber of NightsCost per Night
Long-term lease$7,000195$36
Airbnb$8,400127$66
Hotels$10,60097$109
Prepaid for 2023$5,600
Supplies$200
Totals$31,800

The number of nights is greater than 365 because we had a long-term lease for half the year and also had hotel costs for many of those nights.

As you can see, the long-term lease was the most cost effective. We averaged $66 per night on Airbnb rentals, which is a good deal, while hotel stays averaged $109 per night. Obviously, renting through Airbnb or a similar service is the way to go.

Food cost us $15,700 for the year, which was $1,300 higher than budgeted. We stayed in more hotels which meant more restaurant meals. We also saw some effects of inflation.

Currency exchange costs were an astounding $700. $500 of this was a loss on the value of our Budapest apartment security deposit. The deposit was worth $2,200 in May 2021 but only worth $1,700 by July 2022 because the euro decreased in value compared to the dollar during that time. The remaining $200 was fees associated with withdrawing cash.

Where We Were Under Budget

There were also three categories in which we were notably under budget: transportation, activities, and insurance.

Transportation costs of $8,800 were under budget by $800. Here is the breakdown for our 2022 transportation costs:

MethodCostNumber of tripsAverage cost/trip for two
Flights$2,5008
$313
Trains (long distance)$70012
$58
Buses (long distance)$1008$13
Local$1,000
Totals for 2022$4,300

We spent an additional $4,500 for 2023 flights, which brought the transportation total to $8,800.

Our activity costs were $2,600, which was $2,500 under budget. Here is the breakdown:

ActivityCost
Admission Fees$1,200
Hot-air Balloon$500
Guided tours$300
All other activities$600
Total$2,600

Admission fees of $1,200 got both of us into 39 museums and other tourist attractions for an average cost per person per attraction of $15.

We took two guided tours: a day trip to Mt. Olympus and a two-day trip to Meteora, Greece.

Insurance costs were $3,000, which was $1,500 under budget. We paid $1,100 for Medjet evacuation insurance and $1,900 for SafetyWing travel medical insurance.

We were required to have medical insurance while in Budapest and chose SafetyWing. We budgeted it for the entire year but stopped it when we left Budapest. We are self-insuring for medical care incurred outside the U.S. because, in most places, it is considerably less expensive than in the U.S.

SafetyWing allows you to reinstate coverage at any time.

How We Travel

We travel at a three-star level. No hostels for us, but no five-star resorts either. We can save money by staying in most places for a month, which allows us to take advantage of deeper discounts on Airbnb rentals and spend less on transportation.

We eat more meals at home than in restaurants, but our budget allows us to eat in restaurants when the mood strikes.

We rely on public transportation to get around cities and prefer trains and buses over airplanes when moving between cities.

Cost by Location

LocationTotal CostDaysCost per Day
Budapest, Hungary$14,400155*$93
Aquaworld Resort$4003$133
Szeged, Hungary$9005$180
Vienna, Austria$1,6006$267
Visegrad, Hungary$700
4$175
Prague, Czech Republic$2,30010$230
Austria and Slovenia$2,90012$242
United Kingdom$5,40017$318
Turkish Coast$8,00045$178
Cappadocia, Turkey$1,7006$283
Istanbul, Turkey$4,00027$148
Thessaloniki, Greece$3,30028$118
Meteora, Greece$400
1
$400
Athens, Greece$3,60028$129
Tangier, Morocco$2,60018$144
General Costs$2,200365$6
2023 Expenses$10,100365$28
Totals$64,500365$177
Budget$53,700365$147

* The days spent in Budapest are net of the days we spent in other locations while still having a lease in Budapest.

The Most Expensive Locations

Meteora, Greece at $400/day – this overnight trip was part of a tour to see the monasteries that are built atop 1,000-1,800 foot or 300-500 meter high rock pillars. The tour itself was $300, which included transportation from Thessaloniki, hotel accommodations for one night, and two four-hour tours. We also spent $100 on food, entry fees, and attire, as women are required to wear a skirt that covers their knees, even if they are also wearing pants.

Two monasteries in Meteora, Greece
Two of the Meteora monasteries atop rock pillars

We booked this trip through Meteora.com. Even though it was expensive, we were happy with the tour company.

The United Kingdom at $318/day – we spent 17 days in the U.K., 6 in Manchester, and 11 while walking the Dales Way. It is no secret that the U.K. is outrageously expensive, but what really made this trip costly was that we booked the walk through a tour company. We spent $4,200 on our Dales Way walk, including transportation and meals that weren’t included in the tour package.

Cappadocia, Turkey at $283/day – this was a six-day trip, the highlight of which was a sunrise hot-air balloon ride for $500. Find out more about visiting Cappadocia in our post, “18 Things to Know Before Visiting Cappadocia.”

Vienna, Austria at $267/day – like the U.K., cities in western Europe tend to be pricey.

The Burgtheater in Vienna, Austria
Vienna and its attractions aren’t cheap, but they are incredible

Four cities in Austria and Slovenia at $242/day – this twelve-day trip included four cities, Vienna and Salzburg, Austria, and Bled and Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Bled Island in Slovenia
Bled Island and the scenery around Lake Bled must be seen to be believed

Prague at $230/day – we spent ten days in Prague. Check out “12 Of The Most Interesting Things to Do in Prague.”

The Least Expensive Locations

Budapest, Hungary at $93/day — the fact that we had a long-term lease combined with a lower cost of living than in many European cities made Budapest a bargain.

Thessaloniki, Greece at $118/day – a month in this northern Greek city was a bargain. While there isn’t as much to do as there is in Athens, we enjoyed the relative quiet of this city after the intensity of Istanbul.

The White Tower in Thessaloniki, Greece
The White Tower on the waterfront

Athens, Greece at $129/day – Like Thessaloniki, Athens is a cost-effective European city. We saved money by eating at home since the restaurants in our neighborhood were particularly pricey. We decided to save the food money for when we return to Athens with our daughters in April of 2023.

Aquaworld Resort Budapest, Hungary at $133/day – Our last visit to one of our favorite places was a great bargain. Our three-night stay included our room, half-board, and access to the thermal baths, the waterpark, and the spa facilities.

Aquaworld Budapest
You get a lot of bang for your buck at Aquaworld

You can find out more about Aquaworld here and in our post, “Aquaworld Budapest: Tons of Fun in Hungary.”

Comparison to Previous Years

Here’s a look back since we started traveling full-time in 2018:

YearAnnualized CostDays in YearCost per Day
2018$58,400365$160
2019$52,900365$145
2020$41,700366$114
2021$42,300365$116
2022$64,500365$177

Our daily cost for 2022 was the highest so far and can easily be lowered in 2023.

I believe that the $145 cost per day for 2019 is the most representative of what our type of travel should cost for two people. There were no big expenses in 2019 as there was in 2018 (a two-week Transatlantic cruise) or 2022, and no impact by the pandemic as we had in 2020 and 2021.

What 2022 Taught Us

In 2022, we strayed from our basic tenets: travel slowly by spending about one month in each place and use Airbnbs more than hotels.

However, given what we all dealt with during the pandemic, I’m not going to sweat the decisions we made in 2022.

You can read about our whirlwind year in “Memorable Moments From a Year of Full-Time Travel (2022).”

Until Next Time

I hope you found this post informative. If there is other data you would like to see, please let me know in the comments section. Or just leave a comment to say “hi.”

Happy traveling,
Linda

The Surprising Truth About Full-Time Travel

Come on. Admit it. I bet you’ve dreamt about chucking it all and traveling full-time. And I bet those dreams were full of jaw-dropping experiences, sunshiny beaches, and endless smiles.

Like most things in life, the reality doesn’t always match the fantasy.

With almost five years of full-time travel under our belts, Steve and I are here to share the surprising truth about full-time travel with you.

That’s right. We’ll tell you what happens between those jaw-dropping experiences and the lazy, hazy days of sunshine.

A Little Background

We started traveling full-time in the spring of 2018. Since then, we have returned to the U.S. twice, for a total of nine weeks. The rest of the time has been spent in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and now, Africa. Our “traveling” included two years in Budapest during the pandemic.

We have enjoyed many of the tourist standards like climbing the Eiffel Tower, taking a balloon ride in Cappadocia, and exploring Machu Picchu.

We’ve also had memorable experiences that don’t necessarily top the must-see lists, including visiting the tiny German-inspired hamlet of La Cumbrecita in Argentina, spending a few nights on Taboga Island in Panama, and for Steve, riding ATVs in Cappadocia and Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica.

Both of us are happy with our decision to travel full-time and hope to continue for several more years. Even so, the truth is that “living the dream” isn’t always dreamy. Here’s why.

13 Truths

1. This is not a permanent vacation

It should come as no surprise that we have to do many of the mundane things we did when we lived a conventional life in the U.S.

We have to clean, cook, shop, do laundry, handle finances, and take care of our medical needs, all in unfamiliar places where English may not be widely spoken.

Check out our posts about the challenges of nomad life:
Laundry on the Road
Medical Care on the Road
Too Many Languages

This leads to item number two.

2. We take mini-vacations

Since we discovered that full-time travel does not mean full-time vaca, we have gotten into the habit of taking short side trips. These give us a chance to be tourists. We stay in hotels, eat all our meals in restaurants, and spend our days exploring new locations.

Some of our favorite side trips include ten days in Prague, several stays at Aquaworld in Budapest, where we lulled the days away in their thermal baths, and indulging in luxurious hotels in Eger and Lillafured, Hungary.

Check out our posts: “Aquaworld Budapest: Tons of Fun in Hungary,” and “Eger and Egerszalók: A Great Hungarian Getaway.”

3. We spend a lot of time travel planning

All of our moving around and taking side trips means we spend a lot of time analyzing Airbnb listings and hunting for affordable flights. Not our idea of fun.

The good news is that we’ve learned what works for us, so the planning has become easier.

Airbnb has been a godsend. It has allowed us to live in apartments with kitchens, washing machines, and separate bedrooms. And we rely on Booking.com for great deals for the times when a hotel makes more sense.

Find great tips for your next Airbnb search in “5 Tips for Finding the Best Airbnb Rentals.”

4. It can be hard to decide where to go

Cue the violins. I know this is a first-world problem taken to the extreme. You may think that when you can go practically anywhere in the world, it would be easy to decide.

Well, it isn’t. Besides pulling out the bucket list and booking a flight to dream location number 7, there are many things to consider.

Cost is a big one. Like you, we have to work within a budget, so balancing costly places with less costly ones is important.

Of course, the weather matters too. Depending on your desired activities, this can seriously narrow down the ideal time for visiting a location.

Now add safety and logistics concerns. You don’t want to fly to Argentina, stay for two months, then shoot over to Asia for a bit before returning to the U.S. And you certainly don’t want to visit a place that is experiencing unrest.

5. Visa restrictions are a pain in the b**t

Every country has rules about how long visitors can stay. In South America, all the countries we traveled to allowed us to stay for 90 days, making this aspect of planning a breeze.

Not so for Europe. As U.S. citizens, we can only stay in the Schengen Area for 90 days out of every 180 days. That might not sound like a big deal until you realize that the Schengen Area includes 26 European countries.

Steve and I spent three months in the Schengen Area in the spring of 2018. We then had to leave it for 90 days. We ended up spending three months in Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria.

This was a silver lining situation as we had never considered visiting these countries. Now, they top the list of our favorite places. Steve’s favorite country to date is Croatia, while Bulgaria is one of my favorites.

6. We’ve become hard to impress

When you’ve been fortunate to have seen countless marvels, it is easy to become numb to them. Churches all start looking the same, and in my opinion, few places can match the architectural impressiveness of Paris, Vienna, or Buenos Aires.

We call this the Versailles effect.

At the beginning of our travels, we spent time in Paris. This included two trips to Versailles. The first visit was with a tour. We were so impressed with the palace and grounds we revisited them on our own.

Since then, whenever we tour a palace or other majestic building, Steve will say, “It’s not Versailles.”

You can read all about the incomparable Estate of Versailles in this post.

7. Dream places will disappoint you

I know I’m not the only one who dreamed of visiting the Galapagos Islands. In 2019, I got my chance.

Steve and I stayed there for a month. It was the only place we had ever stayed where we were counting the days until we left.

Don’t get me wrong, I am glad we both got to experience the marvels of the Galapagos Islands. But a month was way, way too long.

Yes, the islands are full of natural wonders, and we have some fond memories. But it is hot and expensive, and nothing on social media or in tourist ads gives you a true picture of what the towns are like. Hint: they aren’t great.

Two photos of the Galapagos Islands: a sea lion covered in sand, an sidewalk in disrepair
Two sides of the Galapagos Islands

Find out more about our Galapagos trip in “Is a Land-Based Galapagos Trip Right for You?

8. The world is full of fantastic places you’ve never heard of

As you travel, you will discover amazing places that were unknown to you.

While in Lisbon, we discovered Sintra, Portugal. This municipality has several palaces with attraction-filled grounds and a large Moorish castle ruin. Read more about Sintra here.

The tiny village of Huacachina, Peru, was also a delightful surprise. We spent a few nights there while touring Peru.

Huacachina is basically a small lake surrounded by huge sand dunes. There are two things to do in Huacachina; party and sand surf. Our party days are behind us, but we did give sand surfing a try.

In 2018, we also spent several days in Lagos, Portugal. This laid-back town on the Atlantic Ocean boasts impressive rock formations along the coast.

Two images: Huacachina, Peru, and Lagos, Portugal
The Huacachina oasis in Peru (photo by Jorden Beltran on Unsplash.com) and rock formations in Lagos, Portugal

9. Friendships will change

We have found that traveling has had two effects on our relationships with the people we knew in the U.S. Either they are interested in what we are doing, and our relationship strengthens, or they are disinterested, and the friendship dies.

We have lost a few friends but also reconnected with old friends, and even made new ones through word of mouth. And of course, we have met countless inspirational people while traveling.

10. You will miss out on things back home

Weddings and funerals are the biggies. Each time one occurs, you must decide if you will make the journey home. This is not always an easy decision.

My sister’s ex-husband passed away in New York State while Steve and I were boarding a plane to the Galapagos. It was a tough decision not to attend, but the logistics were against us. Not only would we have to take at least three long flights to get there, but all our possessions are in Florida. Travel time combined with either stopping in Florida to get the appropriate clothes or shopping for them in New York were the things we considered when we decided not to attend.

11. No Airbnbs hit all the marks

There are a lot of great Airbnbs, and we have stayed in a few that were top notch. But none are perfect.

Some things are constant in the Airbnbs we’ve stayed in: vacuums have to be emptied before we can use them, appliance filters n